40 years of green politics in Poland have seen various strategies attempted, with varying degrees of success. Slow and steady progress has been made but repeated impasses and defeats have called for major changes in direction along the way. The Polish Greens entered Parliament for the first time as part of a broad coalition in October 2019 after an election in which ecology was a central issue. With the environment increasingly a field of contestation between Poland’s right-wing government and its opponents, Adam Ostolski looks back on the development of political ecology in Poland to assess the risks and opportunities this new representation may bring.
In Central and Eastern Europe, Poland stands out for having a Green party that has never made it to Parliament as an independent force. At the same time, green politics has long been part of Polish politics and, despite its ups and downs, it certainly has a future. Understanding the impasses that green political activism has reached over more than three decades is crucial for shaping that future.
Lost in transition
In the 1980s, a green wave was rising in Central and Eastern Europe. As depicted in Padraic Kenney’s A Carnival of Revolution, in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere in the region, green movements became increasingly attractive for young activists over the decade. These protest movements mobilised broad support, enjoyed backing from the general public, and were important actors in the run-up to the negotiated transition in 1989.1 Green issues were deemed serious enough by both the government and the opposition to secure a “sub-table” in the Round Table transition negotiations, and green activists and experts were indispensable to these talks.2 Yet, within a few years after 1989, these movements fell into irrelevance – if not oblivion.
The first blow to the environmental movements was born of their own success. The rapid deindustrialisation of the early 1990s, while creating mass unemployment and social disruption, also improved air quality and pollution levels in some of the worst affected regions. The environmental crisis was suddenly much less palpable in everyday life and thus started to be perceived as less urgent. With unemployment the new norm and social problems now matters for individuals, people had other priorities. Research on social attitudes in this period finds a shift from the post-materialist values that were predominant in the 1980s to materialist concerns.
Ideas put forward by environmentalists for sustainable small-scale agriculture and railway investment were seen as a slap in the face to Poland’s aspiration to be, at last, a truly European country.
The media climate, too, was far from friendly. The lump delegitimisation of social protest was enshrined in the political culture of Poland’s transitional democracy. Actors instrumental to bringing down authoritarian state socialism – workers and environmentalists most notably – were first represented as problematic and then demonised by the liberal media as threats to Poland’s fledgling democracy. David Ost’s The Defeat of Solidarity documents the treatment of the workers’ movement in these years, a fate also met by green movements. 3
Mainstream journalism was overtly hostile to environmental concerns. Transition was about modernisation, and back then the discourse of modernisation and Europeanisation left no place for ecology. Reusable bottles associated with communist times were replaced with tetra packs imported from (and gladly sold by) the West. The dominant consensus was that Poland needed more roads and motorways and that large-scale modern farms should replace “backward” peasant agriculture. Ideas put forward by environmentalists for sustainable small-scale agriculture and railway investment were seen as a slap in the face to Poland’s aspiration to be, at last, a truly European country.
A legacy of distrust
It was under these conditions that a faction of green activists turned their attention to the Ecological Forum within the Freedom Union party. In the mid-1990s, members of this group successfully campaigned from opposition for the inclusion of a “sustainable development” clause in Poland’s new constitution. Adopted in 1997, the Polish Constitution was one of the world’s first to do so. After supporting the liberals at the 1997 elections, environmentalists were rewarded with a deputy minister for the environment post in the cabinet of Jerzy Buzek’s coalition government.
However, the Buzek government continued with megaprojects such as regulating the flow of the Vistula river and the construction of a motorway through the St Anna Mountain national park. The national park became a symbolic cause for the environmental movement and the protests were violently repressed. Protestors climbed trees in an effort to halt the construction as bulldozers pressed on, breaking limbs and ribs.
Neoliberal environmentalism had proved a false friend to the green cause.
Not satisfied with dismantling the post-socialist welfare state and hollowing out the labour code, Buzek’s government made the most extensive cuts to the railway network in Polish history. A third of connections were shut down. Small towns and the countryside were the worst affected areas as people were forced to rely on private cars for transportation. As the Polish market was opened up to Europe, old cars (usually of a low environmental standard) were imported cheaply from Germany to meet growing demand.
Perhaps the most significant green achievement of the Buzek government was the closure of several mines in Silesia. The process is hailed by some as an early case of a “just transition”. The closures were negotiated with trade unions and thus relatively peaceful. Miners leaving their jobs received a decent lump sum in compensation. However, no meaningful efforts were made to create new jobs or to design an industrial policy providing an alternative path for the region This was the era of “the best industrial policy is no industrial policy”. As the money paid to ex-miners dried up, disenchantment with the deal grew and left a legacy of distrust. For the Greens, their only time in government was a lengthy exercise in political irrelevance. The Freedom Union left government in 2000 and lost its seats in the 2001 elections. Neoliberal environmentalism had proved a false friend to the green cause.
The opportunity for another try at party politics came soon enough. In 2003, activists from different social movements came together to form a new party, Zieloni 2004 (Greens 2004). Although environmentalists were among the founders, the heart of the new party was elsewhere. Activists from the ranks of the feminist, LGBT, and anti-war movements shaped the party. With Poland on the verge of joining the EU and European elections coming up in 2004, advisers from the European Green family facilitated the process. With the beginning of a new chapter in the history of political ecology, the Green party would try to build a distinctive brand and contest all elections.
Between 2003 and 2015, the Green party’s largest success was winning five city and regional councillors in 2010. While the result reinvigorated the party, it was not followed by further electoral achievements. But even though opinion polls throughout the 2000s show a consistently declining interest in the environment, they do not sufficiently explain the party’s poor performance. In the same period, the Pirate movement in Poland managed to leave its mark on European policy- making, producing a political party of more than a few dozen members. In 2005, Polish NGOs and activists from the open culture movement were instrumental in bringing down the European Parliament’s patent directive. In 2012, people on the streets of Warsaw and across Poland triggered a pan-European wave of protest that led to the rejection of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement on intellectual property.
The answer lies in what sociologists call the Matthew effect: “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” Bruising campaign after bruising campaign, the new Green party learnt that the system is rigged against newcomers, especially ones short of money. The electoral system in Poland is one of the most difficult to break into in the EU. Legislation introduced in the 1990s sought to stabilise democracy by barring populists and demagogues, and the result is a system that keeps the citizens out.4 Parties that proved able to climb that mountain were either reincarnations of existing political projects or heavily bankrolled, or both.
The Greens were the first party to introduce gender parity across all levels of leadership, something which has since become a normal expectation from any progressive force.
The Greens were unable to break into the established political system. They were, however, relevant to the ongoing social change in Poland over these years. In many aspects, the Greens were like a pioneer species inhabiting a deserted territory. The party worked hard to improve the soil and build the basis for a richer ecosystem but was forced to give way to the stronger species that followed.
In 2003, the Greens were the first party to introduce gender parity across all levels of leadership, something which has since become a normal expectation from any progressive force. Around 2004 to 2005, the Law and Justice (PiS) party started its campaign against gay pride marches (known as “equality marches” in Poland). The Greens and the anti-clerical Racja were the only political parties in the streets alongside the LGBT community as they were met by the far right throwing stones and bottles. The liberal centre, in politics as in the media, was mostly homophobic at the time and often equated the “radicalism” of neo-Nazis with that of sexual minorities.
The only case of the Greens profiting from their commitment to LGBT rights was during the Warsaw elections in 2010, when Krystian Legierski became the first openly gay person elected to public office. Central to Legierski’s campaign was housing policy. A lawyer and entrepreneur, Legierski was the first politician in Poland to address both the demands of the mainly working-class tenants’ movements and the aspirations of the middle class, and to do so with the expertise necessary to dispel any whiff of “populism”. Since that election, housing has become a major topic of political debate at every level of politics.
Around the time of the 2013 COP19 in Warsaw, the Greens were the first to explore the concept of just transition and entered into a dialogue with trade unions – including miners’ unions – about climate policies. At the time, environmental NGOs largely stopped at demonising the miners, while the political establishment perceived EU climate policy a danger to Poland’s national interest. The Greens were also pioneers of municipalism in Poland. Before urban movements appeared as political actors in their own right, the Greens were engaging with anti-road collectives and mobilising people in defence of green spaces. Ex-Green party members played a crucial role in establishing the Congress of Urban Movements in 2011.
This chapter ends in 2015 with the double victory of PiS in presidential and parliamentary elections. Not just the government but the whole landscape changed. As PiS had reinvented themselves to win, now all political parties had to do the same, Greens included.
Contrary to the common misconception, it was not the refugee crisis that was responsible for bringing PiS to power in 2015, but the end of transition. Voters had begun to expect more from the political class and PiS was the first to grasp it. No more “painful reforms” or “necessary sacrifice”; people expected their living and working conditions to improve. Around them, people saw new motorways, railway stations, and stadiums – the new infrastructure built on Donald Tusk’s watch. But they also saw school closures, hospital privatisations, and no improvements to working conditions. It was time for the state to do something for them.
So what changed in 2015? First, PiS’s government was the first in living memory to try to deliver on their electoral promises, albeit with mixed results. For some, this was an outrage. A segment of the liberal-conservative opposition party Civic Platform (PO) voters, identified by sociologist Przemysław Sadura and writer Sławomir Sierakowski as “cynical” PO supporters, expected the situation to return to normal once PO was restored to power. It should be noted that PiS does not take promises more seriously because of any particular trustworthiness; it is compelled to by the new social reality of Poland.
Second, PiS implemented policies responding to the crisis of care. Universal family allowance, raising the minimum wage, lowering the retirement age, the annual “13th pension” payment, school expenditures’ allowances – inconsistent and flawed as some of them are, they provide an answer to the demand that the state should help shoulder the burden of social reproduction. These measures are especially empowering for working-class women in the labour market and give a sense of dignity to many people who feel left behind. It is no coincidence that women are prominent among the “reluctant supporters” of the PiS government.5
The first PiS government made ecology an arena of political confrontation with a general assault on the environment.
Third, PiS introduced a controversial reform of the judiciary that triggered a conflict with the opposition (and the EU institutions) over the rule of law and the meaning of democracy. This further divided the Polish political system and created pressure for a unified opposition that limits the scope for independent actors to gain ground.
Fourth, and most importantly, the perception of environmental challenges has changed both in terms of social attitudes and in political discourse. The first PiS government made ecology an arena of political confrontation with a general assault on the environment. This push helped convert PO and the liberal media to green issues, at least rhetorically. The emergence of new climate movements drove ecology further up the agenda. In the 2019 elections, every political party, from the Left to the far right, addressed climate and ecology in their programme – something unprecedented in Polish politics. Their content differed, of course, in ambition, consistency, and trustworthiness, but the mere appearance marked a breakthrough for green politics.
The environmental policies of the two main parties are variously inconsistent. PiS’s inconsistency is of the “give with one hand, take with the other” variety. The ruling party has supported solar capacity installation in recent years, its projects to build offshore wind farms in the Baltic appear honest, and its proposals on railway investment seem reasonable. Yet forests continue to be felled, the government remains devoted to environmentally disastrous megaprojects, and they are set against committing to climate neutrality by 2050. PO’s inconsistency is found in the difference between words and deeds. While PO members of the European and Polish parliaments can usually be counted on for non-legislative votes, they tend to disappoint in votes of material importance. They have not yet faced a litmus test in the new parliament, so the authenticity of their environmental conversion under Green influence remains unknown.
As for the Greens, disappointed with the Left, they allied themselves with the Civic Platform in the European and parliamentary elections in 2019. They did not gain any MEPs but they did win three seats in the Polish parliament, who now sit with PO. Four ex-Green party members were elected for parties sitting in the Left group. 6 While they do cooperate, this also creates space for healthy competition with regard to furthering the green cause. The official line is that the Greens are, at last, relevant in national politics, have converted their coalition partners to green values, and are preparing to stand on their own lists in future parliamentary elections. Critics say that the Green party has gone full circle. It finds itself back in the times of the Ecological Forum, greenwashing their coalition partners and risking ideological, if not institutional, assimilation with PO. Is it a step forward or is political ecology in Poland at another impasse? It’s too early to call.
While political greenwashing remains a concern for Green parties across Europe, rival articulations of the climate crisis represent an even greater challenge. Against the far-right call to defend “borders and climate” and neoliberal efforts to make the poor pay for the transition, Greens need to defend a distinctive green vision of what climate and ecology mean. Coalition politics becomes urgent and indispensable, but increasingly risky. Whatever was adaptive behaviour for the green species over the last few decades may be adaptive no more. Greens, like all political families, will have to reinvent themselves. At stake is not just the future of Green parties, but the shape of the world to come.
1. Padraic Kenney (2002). A Carnival of Revolution: Central Europe 1989. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
2. See Ewa Charkiewicz (2008). “The Green Finale of the People’s Republic of Poland”. In Przemysław Sadura (ed.). Polish Shades of Green: Green Ideas and Political Powers in Poland. Brussels/Warsaw: Green European Foundation and HBS Warsaw.
3. David Ost (2005). The Defeat of Solidarity: Anger and Politics in Postcommunist Europe. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. On environmentalists, see Adam Ostolski (2012). “Ökologie, Demokratie und Moderne. Umweltproteste in Polen seit 1989”. In D. Bingen, M. Jarosz, & P.O. Loew (eds). Legitimation und Protest. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag.
4. In addition to electoral thresholds, new parties need to collect 100 000 valid signatures with personal data within 30 days to be able to run. Established parties, on the other hand, receive public funds.
5. For more on gender politics in Poland, see Adam Ostolski and Agnieszka Graff. “Gender Ideology and the Crisis of Care in Poland”. Green European Journal. 17 December 2019.
6. Of the four elected, two are in the radical-left Razem and two in the left-liberal Wiosna party. This excludes Piotr Gliński, the current minister of culture for PiS and once a member of the Ecological Forum, who publicly disavowed any link to environmentalism.
This article is part of our latest edition, “A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond”.