Why Do I Care About How Poland Is Perceived Abroad?

"Prensa Europea" by Javier Micora || CC BY 2.0

The poor image of Poland abroad is going to have serious political and economic consequences. That is why I am truly amazed by the people who, in the response to the negative opinions regarding Poland that keep appearing in the most influential world media, only shrug their shoulders. There are real reasons to be worried.

It is not true that caring about articles in foreign press showing Poland in a negative light is a sole sign of being West-oriented. It is also not true that “serious countries” (France and Great Britain are mentioned most frequently) do not care about such things. They do not only care, but also spend big money in order to promote their positive image abroad. The so-called “public diplomacy” or activities aimed at foreign public opinion are an important item in the budgets of all big European countries that try to create a positive message about themselves abroad.

Taking care of the media image is of utmost importance, particularly for the countries that for years have had a negative one, or have not been recognized image-wise abroad, and in addition do not have billions of dollars to spend on the creation of their media image. When you have billions, you can even make small Qatar, a country ruled by the Sharia law and an authoritarian government, seem “a place where dreams come true”, at least in people’s minds.

Poland has no rich sheiks, whereas it has a heavy burden of the past – it was seen as a poorly developed country, neglected and poorly governed during the years of PRL (Polish People’s Republic, 1952-1989). For 25 years we have been slowly getting rid of this burden, gaining the reputation of the “leader of changes” in the post-Soviet bloc and the “Eastern European top of the class”, when it comes to the pace of the economic growth.

While 10 years ago the British The Economist used to illustrate the texts about Poland with images of wagons, during the recent years it wrote about us almost only in the positive context of rapid modernization. Similarly, German media stopped entertaining their recipients with jokes about “Polnische Wirtschaft” (German idiom meaning mismanagement) and car thieves. They have been writing rather appreciatively about the neighbor across the Oder river.

“Orbanization” of Poland…

Now, we seem to be forfeiting the years of effort at an alarming pace. Western media, some with a fake grief, describe Poland as a state politically unstable, unpredictable, quickly heading towards “orbanization”. Just as a reminder, this expression denotes “non-liberal” (to call it euphemistically) state of governance, pumping national pride at the expense of holding a position of a European outsider. An outsider tolerated out of politeness, but not reckoned with. The words of welcome from the President of the European Commission to the Hungarian prime minister, during the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga (May 2015) were a symbol of such an attitude. Jean-Claude Juncker welcomed him with the greeting “Hello dictator!”, heartily patting him on his shoulder. Just a “joke”, but on the other hand, a scene rather humiliating for Orbán and Hungary.

It is worth noticing that when it comes to Poland, the “orbanization” is going to cost us in terms of our image much more than it happened in the case of Hungary. The “orbanization” in Hungary took place simultaneously with raising the country from the economic ruin, which was caused by the previous socialist government. Next to the losses resulting from the political activities of the government, there were also profits connected to the better economic policy. In Poland, for now, we only have losses, because the “good change” (the slogan of the Law and Justice’s election campaign) in politics is accompanied by a “good change” in the economy, symbolized by increasing the budget shortfall by the government of the Law and Justice to the highest (nominally) level in the history of the Third Republic of Poland (1989-present). It will be hard to justify such an immense deficit in the times of rapid economic development. It is noticed not only within the country but also abroad.

and its costs.

The costs of the poor image of our country are going to be threefold. Of course, they will not appear day-to-day, but will become visible within a few or several months

  1. The loss of the investment attractiveness of Poland

Unfortunately, foreign investors do not read Gazeta Polska Codziennie (Polish rightist and conservative daily paper). Instead, they base their opinion about our country on The Financial Times or the The Wall Street Journal. Maybe it is due to this fact, that despite the long-term campaign of the rightist media of showing Poland in a state of complete decay, these investors have been willingly buying shares of Polish companies and building their production plants precisely in Poland. Now they read that the Constitutional Tribunal will not operate in Poland, because the ruling majority wants to have an absolute freedom of legislation. Brought up in countries with an established tripartite division of the law, they shake their heads in disbelief and are anxious about the idea that there will be no one to block a resolution nationalizing foreign property, whenever the ruling party would like to issue such. Unlikely as this scenario may be, they move their money into other places, or refrain from investments. The early signs of such attitude are already visible – last year, the Polish stock market noted the greatest falls in the region. It is hard to determine whether the fact that the situation started when the candidate of Law and Justice won the presidential elections was a coincidence, or not at all.

  1. The increase of the Polish debt service

The access to money of any country is highly dependent on ratings which assess the investment risk in a particular state. Many investors explicitly base their decisions on the position of a given country in a respective rating. If it falls below a certain level, investors automatically withdraw from such market, what as a result lowers the lending possibilities (a country has higher lending rates). This led Greece to the loss of the ability to service its debt. Just before Christmas, Fitch (one of three most important rating agencies) managed to warn against “aggressively populistic” policy of the new Polish government that in connection with bad economic decisions and street protests can negatively influence investors’ sentiments. This does not mean lowering of our rating, but warning bells should start ringing. If the “good change” leads to lowering the Polish credit rating, it will bring a lot of satisfaction to government critics, but will be disastrous for the country itself. Maybe we are a far cry from Greece, but we shouldn’t play with fire.

  1. The lowering of the ability to meet Polish political goals

It is truly naive to believe that in contemporary politics dominated by the media, the bad press that we got will not translate into the weakening of our position in the EU or the NATO. In the complicated international reality, meeting Polish political goals effectively is possible only by the means of multilevel, positive cooperation with the West. The status of a “special care country” will not help here, and we can be labelled as such by the European Commission via their Rule of Law Supervision Framework at any time. The media image of a country turning its back to the Western values, ruled by a populist government of national socialists, fighting against “diseases” symbolized by cyclists or vegetarians (a controversial statement by the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs), also will not be of much help. Whether we like it or not, getting closer to Budapest means not only drifting away from Berlin and Brussels, but also from Washington. The political position of Poland in the world states its power in Europe. But a strong position in Europe should not be built in a way that Law and Justice does it. In such way, you can only lose this position.

* * *

I have no doubts that our political elite is going to satirize the reports coming from abroad. Such reaction to the negative image of Poland in the world media is a proof that the post-communist era in our country is still alive and well, and the insularity of our country’s political elites’ way of thinking is truly terrifying. Well, after all it does not matter how we are seen by the others. What matters, is how do we see ourselves. A proud country does not care about the critique. They should be better protecting their women against rapists and do not deal with their neighbor’s democracy…

That is currently the level of discussion in Poland. It’s only a shame that we have no choice but to try to deal with it.

The article was originally published in Polish at liberte.pl

Translation by Marek Gach