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Jegor Stadny

Aleksander Smolar: Appealing to Politicians means Appealing to Both the Ruling Party and the Opposition

Eastbook.eu presents an interview with Aleksander Smolar, chairman of Stefan Batory Foundation, political anlytist and writer. Jegor Stadny asks the expert about the state and development of non-governmental organizations in Poland as well as the role of the Foundation in Polish-Ukrainian relations.

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Aleksander Smolar,  source: TBi

What, in your opinion, is a successful model of cooperation in the triangle “authorities – NGOs – society”? Which role does each of these segments play?

NGOs are a part of a broader phenomenon, which is called a civil society. We can say that every large society has three rules of integration. There is a political integration, which is implemented through state institutions. The market, or an economic integration is the second one. And there is, finally, the third kind of integration – civil society. The last one creates different types of relationships among people, but beyond the state and the market. Such relations come from common interests, beliefs and ideas. For example, it can be any kind of church or public organisation which helps sick people or deal with educational issues. NGOs are a part of civil society, as well as religious or scientific organizations, and cultural communities. The state should not interfere with their activities – NGOs must be completely independent and autonomous, and the state should guarantee that.

At the same time we can talk about a certain interdependence. For example, a democratic country should be interested in a strong NGO sector, because it creates strong and permanent civil relations. This kind of relations we can observe in the parties during elections – an infrequent event. In such a situation citizens are able to claim their rights. NGOs in the United States, according to de Tocqueville, constitute a network of institutions and organisations integrating the society and creating the community. The state should contribute to this process, for example, enacting relevant tax laws. In Poland, 1% of income tax can be given to a non-governmental organization. On the other hand, non-governmental organizations can play a very important positive role in regard to the functioning of the state. They assume duties that are associated with the state, for example – supporting education and health care system.

But there are also other roles. For example, the Stefan Batory Foundation plays an important role in encouraging people to exercise control over various governmental institutions and autonomous bodies. The Foundation, as well as others, is trying to influence the legislative process so it would strengthen the rule of law in the best interests of citizens.

How do you assess the impact of NGOs on the policy of the Polish government? Does it increase or decrease? In what area is the impact visible?

It depends on a situation. For example, one of the major problems, especially in Ukraine, is corruption. In Poland, we have a special anti-corruption program – in this instance we have been able to collaborate with all Polish cabinets – left-wing, right-wing and centrist – all of them were interested in co-operation with us and recognized our competence on this matter. Therefore, our program was taking a prominent part in establishing standards and rules of politics, avoiding conflicts of interests. In addition, the cabinets were interested in working with us because we were able to mobilize the public opinion. Also, we often receive legislations from various ministries for examination. NGO representatives are involved in the meetings of various committees, when the projects of new laws are discussed, and they contribute to the discussions with their own opinions.

What are the most and least effective projects implemented by the Stefan Batory Foundation?

I have already mentioned our anti-corruption program. I don’t want to overestimate our role – the program had a limited impact on reducing the level of corruption, but we influenced the growth of interest in overcoming the problem of corruption in society and in governmental circles. We also stimulated the society to participate in elections, particularly – young people. Before launching large campaigns, we rallied dozens of non-governmental organizations under the slogan, “You have a voice, you have a choice”. We got the evidence of public recognition of our impact when Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS – Law and Justice, national conservative political party in Poland) lost the elections in 2007 – its leader Jarosław Kaczynski named us one of the most powerful causes of his defeat. Through the mobilization of young people who, mainly, voted for other parties, we influenced the defeat of PiS. I do not know to what extent that was true, but surveys showed that our actions encouraged young people to vote.

We also have a very significant impact on the non-governmental sector allocating money to NGOs. They send us their applications, describing what they want to do, and the board with the help of experts decides and allocates funds. In addition, we help them in other ways: we advise what they need to do, how to prepare applications to get the funds.

Which projects were unlucky? It is hard to say, because sometimes positive results come with a delay. For example, we promote the control of non-governmental organizations over various state institutions. Only a few interested organizations have contacted us. But in this context, some long-term actions are more important: NGOs are often afraid that their activity implies a confrontation with the authorities and we have to convince them they should not be.

I can give another impressive example: in the past, when we had more money for higher education projects, we were often disappointed, as students were the most conservative group in comparison with others – they did not take actions that would be worthy of our investments. Perhaps, in the 1990s, it was due to severe financial situation of the group: students devoted every spare minute to earning money, but the outcome was unsatisfactory.

In general I would say that our work has been evaluated as highly positive. The Foundation has been frequently criticized by the right-wing circles and nationalist forces, but we have never been accused of giving money, motivated by our private interests, or of corruption.

Unfortunately, today in Ukraine there is quite common unpleasant practice when NGOs just live on grants and do not make any impact. What is the situation in Poland?

When I was in Ukraine, I heard similar accusations. I do not know if it is true or not – it may be just unfounded stereotypes. But in Poland, you could rarely hear such accusations. Perhaps, in the 1990s, that was more common, for there were more funds from various international foundations. Today the amount of money is much smaller. Large foundations left Poland, believing that our country is well developed and can use the EU grants instead. Therefore, these phenomena do not occur. Of course, there are organizations with a greater or lesser degree of efficiency.

Is there any communication among NGOs created by different generations in Poland?

There are many new NGOs, representing the interests of young people, and recently I have  heard from young experts that the generation going back to the democratic opposition in the 19980s does not help them. But I doubt that’s true. They were expecting some sort of special care. Our role, as I have said, is to help new organizations. In other words, I do not see any conflicts between the generations when it comes to the non-governmental sector in Poland. But, going back to the previous question, the non-governmental sector is not developing quite dynamically. This partly arises from the lack of funds. But on the other hand, there is also the lack of public creativity and dynamism. It is characteristic for all post-communist countries, where the development of civic engagement is not high.

It is said that societies are stronger in more democratic countries. But can we say that activists are prepared better in states that have problems with democracy?

This idea was formulated in terms of culture, which is supposedly better developed in difficult conditions of censorship. Of course, in a limited democracy there are people with strong characters – some of them are able to withstand very harsh conditions, and this is very valuable. But these people, who passed this exam during hard times, are not always the best choice in normal conditions of democracy – we could observe it in all post-communist countries. Men of war were not always able to function within the rule of law.

Secondly, most of societies do not consist of heroes. It can be said that the greatness of democracy lies in the fact that it is a state in which “our people” are just “average” and not very brave. In other words, the chance of development of a civil society is still higher in a democracy. Although, of course, it requires a smaller ardour and emotional engagement than in a dictatorship or semi-dictatorship. In a democracy there is no heroic or romantic engagement, but every person is able to participate, can demonstrate her or his merits without any risk. One only needs to devote a little time, energy and creativity to the cause.

When do activists feel better – protesting against the authorities or cooperating with them?

Non-governmental organizations should not be guided by political criterion in their activities – they should look for people of good will and cooperation opportunities wherever they exist – both in opposition and in a government. The Foundation has a liberal democratic basis, but we have worked with both right- and left-wing governments, whose ideology was not our own. We believed that there are areas where we have common interests and where we can act together and do something valuable. When we address politicians, it is usually an appeal to the leaders of both the opposition and the ruling parties. They decide whether they want to cooperate with us or not by themselves – we do not make any pre-selection. Personally, I also have certain political beliefs, was also politically active, but to be bound only with the opposition or with the power would be unnecessary politicization of the Foundation and its destruction.

Will you agree with the statement that – being in opposition – it is very easy to get carried away by criticism and thus lose the ability to propose something in exchange?

Sometimes the criticism is necessary. For example, when we are engaged in solving problems of corruption, corruption usually refers to the government, not the opposition. The same situation is with the protection of human rights. You can not abandon criticism in the name of neutrality. Certain programs of the Foundation concentrate on criticizing the authorities, as our organization is concerned with the power and protection of the citizens in front of their authorities. But in other programs, where there is no such problem, we are looking for cooperation with the government if there is any opportunity to do useful things together. We must look for allies wherever we can find them. If we are talking about cooperation with openly anti-democratic forces that are destroying the independence of civil society, then, of course, cooperation is impossible.

At the same time focusing solely on criticism is a manifestation of a certain weakness, as criticism requires some bravery, but often it is easier, because at the same time the weaknesses of the authorities are clear and simple. If we focus exclusively on criticism, then we lose sight of the chance for positive action and finding niches where we can influence the power, showing good will from the side of the non-governmental sector.

What is the difference between criticism of the authorities by the opposition parties and by NGOs?

The difference is very significant, as the goals are different. Each political party is fighting for power. And NGOs should not aim at replacing regimes with democracy – it is not our role – but, above all, our goal is to change the practice of authorities, in order to create an independent civil society,  so initiatives and activities could be fully launched and citizens could feel more free and in control.

Does the opposition frequently use NGOs while fighting against the government?

Actually, the task of non-governmental organizations is to prevent themselves from being used. For example, our Foundation is, let’s say, liberal-democratic, and we were very critical of the then ruling party, PiS, in 2005-2007. However, at that time the level of corruption diminished, and that’s true. They fought hard against corruption, often using methods which we did not approve. However, despite this disapproval, PiS referred to our evaluations, citing that the level of corruption had decreased. Another thing – Ruch Palikota (“Palikot’s Movement”, Polish political party): they recently announced that the Batory Foundation supported their project. That was not true. The fact is that they sent us a project asking if it contained any threats of corruption. Employees of our program wrote back that they do not see any threats. But Ruch Palikota did it on purpose, to say that the Batory Foundation supports them when it was not the case. But that’s just politics.

The cooperation between parties and NGOs strengthens the authority of the former, showing that we have an impact on the political sphere. Political parties seek support from non-governmental organizations of a certain position. It is a complex relationship, but there should be no privileged communication. NGOs do not have to act in the interests of parties.

Unfortunately, such a phenomenon in the post-authoritarian countries is quite common. For example, in Germany, parties have their own foundations.

But this is different. They are created by parties and financed by the state. Their existence has roots in German law. The state funds all the political parties that are in the Bundestag. For example, in Poland there are representatives of such organizations: Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, belonging to the Christian Democratic party, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung – to the Social Democratic party, Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung is related to the Free Democratic party, and the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung – to the Green Party. We can say that the foundations strengthen intellectual reflection and influence of their own parties in Germany and abroad.

I would want to focus on the Polish-Ukrainian relations and to ask what the role of the Batory Foundation in establishing them is at the moment?

These relations are very important to us, as we have always funded many initiatives in this field. Great attention is paid to the problem of open borders. Also we are trying to put pressure on the EU to liberalize the border laws, trying to influence the Polish state to make visa processes more humane – to avoid the long queues, to treat people in a better way, etc.

Since Ukraine is not developed in a liberal-democratic aspect, we believe that we must work even more actively. For example, we have created the Polish-Ukrainian forum – we will conduct systematic conferences and debates in different communities, brainstorming on the issues which are interesting to both Ukrainians and Poles – whether it concerns history, law, or corruption. We will consider various topics.

How does the Foundation assess the effectiveness of such activities?

There are different criteria, because it is mostly about the impact on citizens, on making them closer to each other. The organization of such meetings has positive consequences, for there are people on both sides, who establish contacts, and you never know when it can be used.

Here is an example, which concerns – not very successful – Yushchenko’s presidency. Before becoming president, he visited Poland on the Foundation’s invitation, an so did many other Ukrainian politicians who later reached political heights. They were often invited, and then, suddenly, they were occupying important government posts, so it turned out that the pre-established contacts formed the Polish-Ukrainian relationship between neighbours.

Frequent debates on how to eradicate corruption or on the legislative process can have a positive impact on both the Ukrainian and the Polish sides. It is difficult to say anything in advance. But you can also asses it directly – if we are able to expand the number of contacts, i.e. we are not limited with the circle of old friends – it is a proof of the success for us. Also, if we can overcome the age barrier – it is a proof that we are not numbed and can still reach out to the young. These are the criteria which allow us to partially evaluate the progress – to understand that the Foundation still has limited capabilities. The two large European states must have a thousand other possibilities of mutual influence, and we’re trying to find them.

Do you see the difference in the behaviour of Ukrainian politicians and Ukrainian NGOs at various conferences in Poland?

Recently there was the Polish-Ukrainian forum on the attitude towards Europe. Unfortunately, from the governmental side only Mrs. Herman came, and she attended only the open discussion – later there was no representatives of the government. But intellectuals and politicians from the opposition still attended the closed meeting.

This reflects the situation in Ukraine, where the conversation between the government and the opposition is not an easy task. We wanted to help the dialogue between the Ukrainian authorities and the opposition, although, of course, that is not our role, but the Ukrainians’. The forum clearly shows the difference between the views of different players, although they do not openly engage into polemics with each other. They formulated their views that were clearly different – from very liberal to very, very right-wing. This is normal, but bringing these views into a particular political activity is another thing, which I was not able to assess.

I have often seen the Ukrainian guests having limited knowledge of Polish and European realities, and formulating questionable judgements. And that was in regards to such an important matter as the European policy towards Ukraine. Frequently I encountered an acute rejection of European politics without realizing how complex the mechanisms that lead to the formation of such a policy in the EU are, considering all the variety of views on the same issues in each EU state. Of course, it is possible and necessary to influence the attitude of the EU towards Ukraine. Ukrainians themselves need to take active part in this process – they can present their views and criticize the position of various European governments in the Western media. After all, to be effective, you need to understand how the goals can be reached, because the situation is much more complicated than they think in Kiev and Lviv. Our meetings can play an important role, showing the complexity of the political process, not only in Poland but also in the whole European Union.

How would you comment on the problem with the release of Tymoshenko in regard to the process of European integration?

It is not about supporting Tymoshenko, because one can be very critical about her policies when she was Ukraine’s Prime Minister. Apparently, she did a lot of things that led to the present situation, putting Yanukovych in power. However, her release would be a sign of respecting the law, because one cannot put politicians in jail for their political decisions. This can be regulated by the voters, who would probably not give their votes to such a politician again. Therefore, if the Ukrainian authorities want any relations with the EU, they must respect the basic human rights norms. In Poland, we have quite an obvious opinion on this matter, I have not seen anyone criticizing the problem of imprisoning Tymoshenko as an indicator of whether we can trust the Ukrainian government. On the other hand, the Ukrainian point of view is essential – the citizens should put pressure on their government.

And finally, what would you wish Ukrainian NGOs?

I wish them a stronger civil society – making Ukrainians believe that they could influence their destiny, can still make a lot of things, also outside politics. For example, regarding science, culture and their own neighbourhood. At the same time you can build an influence on the authorities, stimulating civil assuredness that it all depends only on us as citizens – our faith in ourselves, confidence in the fact that we have power and can do a lot.

The publication can be also find – in Ukrainian – in the European world, № 6.

Translated by MA

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