By NLM writer
The NLM caught up with Marek Rohr-Garztecki, permanent Representative of the Republic of Poland to UNEP and UN Habitat, to discuss matters trade and diplomatic relations. The following is an excerpt of that interview
You have been here a while now. How does compare to the other countries where you have served such as Angola, Sao Tome and Principe and Gabon?
I have taught contemporary African studies in Poland and I always repeat that there is no such thing as Africa. Because of the multiplicity of languages, countries here are so diverse. The biggest difference between Kenya and the other places I have served is that the country is much more economically developed. From my extensive travels while working for the World Economic Forum I have noticed that although the capitals are quite similar in that they are defined by high rise buildings and general opulence of the rich, the levels of underdevelopment in rural areas in these other countries is much higher. Then there is politics. In spite of everything, at least people do participate in real elections here. Elsewhere there is no problem with elections because people just don’t care to vote as the entire voting exercise is a charade. People just don’t care because they know beforehand who is going to be president. For example, look at Togo, where one family has been in power for decades. You may have problems but very often, problems are sign of a healthy country. The quietest place is the grave. With all the things that are problematic here, Kenya is a great place and I say this as a person who has visited more than 20 African countries as an “expert” I don’t really like the word (he chuckles)
You have heard quite an eventful life
Well, I’d say yes. We (Poland) had for a long time the communist system which was imposed upon us by the Soviet Union. I have been a fairly rebellious character since childhood. I was in the opposition; I know how prison looks like from the inside. I was told that nothing could be done about communism that I would destroy myself fighting it; I was even thrown out of university for leading a strike. But…where are we today, those who said I would end up as a wreck are nowhere and I am here where I am.
Among the few things the world knows about you is that you are a music enthusiast and a confessed Socialist. How deeply so?
I actually chaired the Polish Socialist Party. I am not politically involved anymore because I left politics in disgust and my current position is not compatible with it anyway. What was important for me about socialism were two things, equity – not equality like in communism and Nazism (to me they are very close) and the idea of equal opportunity. Under communism everything is regimented, what to do what to wear what to think and as you already know I was a rebellious kid…and music was an outlet. Music was something they couldn’t control.
I set up a music club which was eventually closed by the communist party because it was getting too popular and they could not control it. Actually, to a certain degree my views came from music. I was great fan of Bob Dylan
Did you sing or record music?
No actually I was a DJ. I was one of the first DJ’s in my country in the 60s
You even edited music publications and wrote a book about rock music! We are very curious about this.
Hahaha it started in a very strange way. I got a book, The Rock Story. It was the very first book which tried to see rock as a historical phenomenon. You’re too young but in the 50s rock was considered just a dance fad that would go away. I read the book and I was so annoyed with its author. He was a person who lived in England, a free country, who could do proper research, yet I knew more facts that him yet I lived in prison that Poland was at the time. I wrote my book to correct his errors. So mine was actually the 2nd book on the subject worldwide. For me music was as escape from oppression
How old were you when you wrote the book?
19…probably 20 (he laughs). It was a national bestseller, the initial print run sold out after a week! The publisher added more print runs until they run out of paper.
Then there is diplomacy. How does that compare to your other loves, including journalism, music, politics, activism, military and economics?
There is a music paper in Poland Jazz Forum and I have been on the credits page for 41 years now. So this is this is the one job I have been doing all my life – being a music critic. The others are in and out. But the world of journalism has changed since I joined it. I don’t like info-tainment. As a journalist, coming from a very oppressive system I always wanted people to know the truth, not to entertain them. I don’t like modern journalism where the scandal is the most important aspect. So I think journalism has slipped down my list of loves. Music will always remain my passion.
Despite opening its embassy in Nairobi in 1964, the trade volume between Kenya and Poland has remained low and recently, since 2007, trade balance has been in favor of Kenya. How do you explain this trend?
Poland has evolved so much in the last few decades. We underwent a rapid fundamental economic and political transition. We adopted open market economy and parliamentary democracy. We had to re-orientate our economic profile, as before, until 1989 most of our trade had been with the Soviet Union. We had to change that. We have joined the European Union which also meant adopting very stringent standards. It was a difficult but successful transition and now we are looking to the rest of the world. It will take some time for trade relations to balance out.
Poland’s exports to her African partners have mainly been textile, machinery, electronics and vehicles which are niche products for more established partners such as Germany, Britain and China. This is, according to some experts, the reason behind the low trade volumes. Does Poland consider diversifying her exports, perhaps finding an alternative less explored niche for herself or does she plan to fight it out with the “big boys”? What is the strategy?
Germany is famed for its cars but the truth is many of them such as Mercedes and Volkswagen actually wouldn’t exist without Polish parts and electrical appliances. This is good because it creates jobs and builds skills in Poland. Unfortunately, it makes it harder for people to recognize Poland as a very big industrial country. I attended the Swedish national day In June and amongst the goods they were displaying were Volvo buses and trucks. I went to the guy in charge and told him “but you know Volvo buses are made in Poland”. He laughed because he knew it was true. And this happens because workers are paid so much more in many places like Sweden.
Again we don’t have recognized brands but by far, Poland is the largest bus manufacturer in Europe. Now we have a bus brand, Solaris and you will find Polish buses on the streets of Germany while Pesa supplies diesel engine trains to Germany right now, but people only know of Mercedes. But give us time, we will get there.
We were the only country in Europe that experienced growth during the crisis of 2008 and we still have one of the highest growth rates in Europe. Labor is not only cheap, it’s skilled and hence many more companies are setting up in Poland. We are also one of the largest producers of cheese and milk products. We also produce a lot of wheat. We are looking to expand agricultural exports to the rest of the continent from North Africa and Nigeria and generally building Polish brands and creating a greater international outlook.
We are looking to produce good quality yet affordable futuristic goods.
How important is good governance in Poland’s diplomatic agenda? The focus seems to be more on trade and economic development.
As diplomats, we have our own views but it’s not our job to express them. Our job is to facilitate contacts with your country. I do not represent any political dispensation and whoever is elected; our duty is to work with them. We are also members of the EU. It’s our obligation not to jump the line. They have already made their comment. I would be very surprised in any other EU country made their comment.
If the opposition candidate is elected, it would be my job to ensure economic cooperation. At the end of the road, and frankly, I was a politician myself, the most important thing is economic cooperation for the good of the people. I think this is what Africa even Poland needs the most.
Poland also had plans to open a trade office in Nairobi to deepen trade and bilateral relations. How are they coming along?
Yes we did open the trade office and there is a lot of interest. We are going to increase the range of goods being exchanged. There is also the human experience, we are already sharing expertise. Perfect example is Mr. Sebastian Mikosz, the manager who turned around KQ was head hunted from Poland. There is every reason for optimism.
Poland doesn’t seem to be very fond of Kenyan vegetables, flowers, fruits and coffee. Despite these products being Kenya’s biggest exports to the EU and existing preferential trade for the African Caribbean Pacific member countries and the EU meaning that Kenyan products have no tariff barriers for most products exported into Poland, they are either missing in her exports to Poland or feature very negligibly compared to what is imported.
We have opened a Polish Trade Office in the city. I am informed that barely 2 weeks into operation it had already received 20 requests from companies in Poland inquiring about the market here.
A trade analysis report by the Export Promotion Council reveals that Poland barely imports our tea, coffee and uncut flowers…
When I worked as an advisor in the Poland Prime Minister’s Office, I did some research and analysis and discovered that while Poland produces a great deal of processed, instant coffee we import unprocessed coffee mainly from Germany and Holland. It surprised me, because you wouldn’t find any coffee or tea plantations in those countries. It turned out that you have a closed market. The Dutch have long term contracts on your coffee. Our importers can buy directly from Kenyans but at the same price or higher than that paid by the middlemen! It’s the same for tea, coffee or cut flowers
Tell us about the GoAfrica programme
It’s been our first serious attempt to re-engage economically with Africa. It still exists on paper, but it has been subsumed by a much larger programme. It involves opening trade offices in key African economies. We are planning to have, initially, at least four such offices in Sub-Saharan Africa and I am happy to say that Nairobi was the first city where we did it. Until now we had only one trade representative for the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa in Johannesburg.
A few colleagues who knew about this interview said that I should tell you that they feel a little neglected. According to them, Poland’s foreign policy has always centered on strengthening relations with the European Union and it’s only because of a stagnant European Union and growing geopolitical problems in Russia that she is now forced to look to our side. These concerns are further deepened by Poland’s silence at our most trying time- the just concluded disputed elections. What should I tell them?
After the end of the Second World War the rulers of Poland was looking only at Moscow. When we joined the EU and NATO and also we got quite some substantial help to the EU we had to adopt our economy to EU standards. We were quite involved in Africa in the 60s but like all communist countries, it was directed by Moscow. Moscow simply assigned countries positions of influence so as to push the communist agenda. We were told where to set up embassies and trade was mostly in military items.
The post-communist governments decided to align its agenda with the EU because as while we were a poor country that association presented the best prospects of rapid growth. At that time many of our non-European embassies were closed and it’s only now that we are reopening them. We have a modern economy now and we enjoy a greater capacity of association.
How do you (Poland) choose the countries you get involved with? Your selection seems rather haphazard considering that you tend to rely on the presence of a Polish company in a given market, or a favorable political climate based on personal relations or good past experience
Well, like every other country we just look for compatible business partners. Politics today is just a service to economy. Whatever happened to Poland, we never closed our embassy in Nairobi. We did, do and will always consider Kenya as one of our major partners.
What’s Poland’s plan for Kenya? Is there anything more that correcting the unfavorable balance of trade in Kenya’s favor that has characterized economic relations between the two countries until now?
That’s a question better placed before our Trade Office. The Embassy only concentrates on bilateral dealings between the governments
Finally, there is the small matter of racism. Poland has one of the highest numbers of reported cases of racism and the Polish government has been accused of contributing to this trend through rhetoric that tends to conflate refugees, terrorism and Islam into a perceived threat to Polish values. Similar themes are heard in Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic. What can you say about this?
First of all I do not consider racism to be a small matter, but where did you get those statistic from? It doesn’t tally up with my life’s experience and I was brought up in France and lived for over twenty years in London. I think it is a “statistical artifact” created by reporting. To give you an example: a few days ago a Turkish girl was assaulted in Warsaw. The very same day that the incident was reported our minister of home affairs (of this supposedly racist government) went on national TV condemning the incident and promising to catch the perpetrators. By the next day, the perpetrators had already been arrested. Trust me, in the UK such an incident would never made the national media, moreover the victims wouldn’t even bother informing the police, because the Met would consider this a too minor accident to investigate. I am telling you his from personal experience. We acknowledge that there are problems. But they are not any greater that there are elsewhere. It’s just there is more focus on Poland, probably because most of the news you consume is from outlets in Western Europe who are not so critical of their own situation. Before the last war Poland was a very diverse society, with large ethnic minorities of Ukrainian, Jewish and even German origin. It’s was the communists directed by Josef Stalin who decided that Poland should be ethic homogenous country, engaged in forced mass migration of minorities. Young Polish people today only know of homogenous Poland. That’s why they react as they do and that is why they are easily convinced by divisive rhetoric.
The other thing that you won’t find in any Western paper is that there is a very large number of refugees and migrants from Ukraine in Poland now, probably more than a million. They all have been allowed to work legally, use the National Health Service like Poles, do not live in the camps and are fully integrated. And it’s not only them. I had a number of African students attending my lectures, while I was teaching in Warsaw. Among them I had two girls from Kenya, very bright, by the way. ^