The Land of the Poles is now a part of NATO, it is a member of the European Union and belongs to most of the structures and institutions that are a mark of democracy in the modern world. But does that make it a democratic country of the ‘civilised, western’ world?
The problem with defining Poland as a democratic country hinges on the fact that there seem to be several definitions of the term. However, a more pressing problem is the fact that the Polish ‘democracy’ is often compared against the French, British or American ‘democracies’ with commentators often forgetting that Poland was still a communist state in 1989, little over twenty years ago. A mere twenty years have passed… Comparisons, rather, should be drawn between the ‘democracies’ of Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria or the Czech Republic.
Civilisation is a different matter altogether. With democracy we can use indexes such as the Polity IV Project or the work of Freedom House but civilisation is a little harder to characterise. There have been various methods of pigeon-holing countries into this or that category (like Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations) but they all seem rather simplistic but my favourite is my own Toilet Check. The mark of civilisation in any country is the state of its public toilets. Check out ten public toilets in Berlin, Stockholm, Tunis, Cairo, Prague, Budapest and Warsaw. Then put them in order of cleanliness. This is civilisation.
Another marker of a modern civilised democracy is the level of initiative on the part of regular citizens. In Poland, this manifested itself in the Solidarity movement which helped bring down communism in Europe. However, following the implementation of democracy, popular initiative seemed to have disappeared. Not so any more. Thanks to the internet, a host of web-based initiatives have sprung up. A particular favourite of mine is Nie parkuj jak kutas (Don’t Park Like a Prick) which publishes pictures of illegally-parked vehicles together with colourful commentaries.
So perhaps a way of defining a modern civilised democracy is looking at the grass-roots of the society: the state of the toilets, the level of services, the amount of popular initiative. The state of a country’s toilets and Don’t Park Like a Prick may appear to be amusing but they give us a quick insight into the state of the country. It will be our ability to nurture these initiatives that may be a linchpin for the development of democracies not only in Poland but around the world.