“Life is so hard nowadays. Because of the communists, because of what happened after, it was all a joke . . . at least I can hold my head high and know my conscience is clear,” she crouches down and whispered cautiously in my ear.
It’s noon and I was on a crowded, hot streetcar in downtown Warsaw this past May getting a free history lesson from a little old lady with bright purple hair. Her attempt to be discreet is futile.
“It is Poland’s fault that it’s facing the situation it is in because you voted these people in,” a young, frustrated business man chimed in, gesturing towards the senior.
Emotions run high in Poland, a country deeply divided along many lines and echo in other regions of Eastern Europe. In countries that have for decades been ruled by communist regimes, the collapse of the Soviet Union was seen as a new beginning. However, almost two decades later, this fresh start is not going as smoothly as had been hoped, leaving many scratching their heads in confusion.
But the President and PM are identical?
It’s twins! The expression associated with joyous parents and baby showers is not often heard in the political arena. Except in Poland, of course.
The Oct. 2005 Presidential elections brought Lech Kaczynski, from the Law and Justice party (PiS) to the post. A month earlier, the PiS party had been voted into power in the parliamentary elections and after some conflicts within the party and by July 2006, the President’s identical twin brother, Jaroslaw, took the office of Prime Minister.
“The likelihood of having brothers [in top government positions] is small, but twins . . . that’s one in a million. Poland got into the Guinness Book of World Records,” said Lavinia Stan, professor of Eastern European politics at Concordia.
Although this weird predicament was looked upon by the Western states with shock, both elections had been legal and at the beginning the unstoppable duo received much support from the Polish population.
Soon however, they began alienating much of the population with their firm views on punishing former communists, as well as returning to old-fashion moral values. They also estranged most European Union members during discussions over the new treaty.
After a parliamentary election was called two years early, voters made their voices heard last Sunday. After months of intense campaigning and debates, voters chose the twins’ main opponent, Donald Tusk, from the centre-right Civic Platform (PO), as Prime Minister. “This was a vote against the twin, not a vote for Tusk. Anyone would have won,” Stan said.
The twins’ controversial policies had alienated the Polish people. Although Tusk had run against Jaroslaw Kaczynski for PM only two years earlier and lost by a significant number, this time the situation was reversed. “The twins, of all the leaders in post-communist states, pushed transitional justice,” Stan said about their anti-communist strategies. “This did not help the twins remain popular.”
However, the twins did not see their most loyal fan base give up. The older generation, many of whom are Roman Catholics, had steadfastly supported the twins for their conservative policies. The running joke come election time was for people to hide their grandmothers’ elector card so they couldn’t vote. Maybe some did.
Lech Kaczynski will remain President until the 2010 election, while his twin brother will form the opposition in Parliament.
In Russia, as the bell chimed ringing in the new century, things were not going to be the same. On Dec. 31, 1999, Yelstin appointed Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, as President.
In the seven years since Putin was appointed and subsequently elected and re-elected to the top post, the West has watched as Russia moves away from normal standards of democracy and as the country regains momentum as an international player.
Through two terms, Putin has managed to seize power over all of the country’s political, social, econcomic and military institutions, as well as the former Soviet Blocs, all the while charming the population.
“[Putin] promised law and order and he delivered it,” said Marika Pruska-Carroll, who teaches Russian politics at Concordia, about the President’s tremendous legacy.
Putin has been highly successful in influencing a number of economic, political and social arenas, including taxation and the oligarchs being punished, with money not allowed to be taken out of the country, as well as Russia’s “greatness being restored,” Pruska-Carroll.
Through this, Putin maintains unwavering support with over 80 per cent. “I was in Russia in May and June and [the support] seems to be very genuine,” Pruska-Carroll said.
Putin’s announcement that since the constitution only allows for a President to sit for two terms, he will now run for Prime Minister next year, does not come as a surprise to Professors Pruska-Carroll and Stan. “Putin is here to stay one way or another,” said Pruska-Carroll.
“If he becomes [Prime Minister] he will switch more power to the position first,” she added, addressing the circulating rumours that he will retain power for a long time.
A little poison with that Revolution?
Not long ago, he had been a handsome man. Then suddenly his face became severely marked and disfigured. Viktor Yushchenko, many argued, had been poisoned.
Yushchenko was the main opponent in Ukraine’s 2004 presidential elections, running against Viktor Yanukovych, who was Russia’s preferred candidate. Many believe Russia exerted its influence to convince Yushchenko to withdraw. He did not.
However the man who was poisoned was not declared the winner in elections that were considered rigged. The people took to the streets in peaceful demonstration. The Orange Revolution began.
“It is the first time since the establishment of communism that people rose against the government and won . . . it gave people belief that they could decide the future of their country,” said Marko Stech, the Managing Director of the Toronto chapter of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies.
Within two weeks the election results had been annulled and after a re-run was ordered by Ukraine’s Supreme Court, Yushchenko was declared the winner. He began to work together with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the one with the large, old Russian-style braid. However, trouble was near.
Parliament fell apart and Yanukovych became the Prime Minister. After another set of parliamentary elections on Sept. 30, Stech noted, Tymoshenko’s party received the most votes and it is most likely she will become PM again.
Since she was PM last time, Tymoshenko has learned about strategy, including how to better work with the President, even though she holds views that are very different from his. Most likely they will have to form a compromise, especially on the constitution which Yushchenko altered, however this not working well.
“Current elections . . . [showed] Yushchenko they are not happy with him,” Stech added.
Two men, an elevator and a gun
The current political events in Eastern Europe seem to show that if the population isn’t happy with its leader, they can and will do something about it. Or maybe they are happy, as in Russia.
But how can you vote in twin brothers and then two years later change your mind? Can you be happy when the supreme leader holds total control over every institution and the media? Can you accept the poisoning of your soon-to-be President and three Parliamentary elections in four years? Would you trudge out to a voting booth once a year? Is this the new trend of Eastern European democracy?
In a live debate leading up to the election, the new Polish Prime Minister Tusk accused one of the twins, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, of years ago having pulled out a handgun while in an elevator and threatening him: “For me to kill you would be peanuts.”Although Kaczynski didn’t acknowledge the accusation directly during the debate, when asked at a press conference he said that Tusk had “major problems with his memory,” although he did admit he carried around a handgun for protection during those times.
It seems that the governments of Eastern Europe cannot escape their legacy.