'Strong Silesian institutions with independent financing are fundamental'

Michał Kieś

INTERVIEW. Michał Kieś, president of the Katowice Branch of the Silesian Autonomy Movement, explains that the Silesian political movement seeks a new system “based on a regional treasury” and regional bodies “equipped with wide competences, such a

Since the end of the Communist rule, Silesians have been challenging the idea of a unitary Poland. This political attitude has deep roots in the centuries-long history of Silesia as a political unit and also in its own cultural and linguistic character. The Silesian Autonomy Movement (Ruch Autonomii Slaska, RAS) is the current political leading force in the struggle of the Silesian people for recognition and self-government. The party has recently got remarkably good scores in recent regional elections. What is RAS claiming for? Nationalia speaks to Michał Kieś, president of the Katowice Branch of the Silesian Autonomy Movement.

In order to make it clear to a non-Silesian non-Polish audience: is RAS thinking about the autonomy only for Upper Silesia, or rather for the whole historical Silesia? And, in any case, do you have any claim onto the Silesian territories that are nowadays part of the Czech Republic?

Nowadays we treat an autonomous status not as a privilege, but as an elementary and consistent right of every regional community that aspires to obtain more self-determination. We feel connected to the whole Silesia, but our aim is to reach autonomy for both Upper and Lower Silesia as two individual regions. We definitely don't raise any claims as to the Silesian territory in the Czech Republic but we'd like to initiate a close cooperation of all Silesian administrative regions within a Euroregion structure.

RAS says that its goal is self-government, but not independence. Which are the concrete goals in this framework? Fiscal autonomy, cultural self-government...?

We understand self-government as a political system based on a regional treasury (fiscal autonomy) and a regional government elected by a regional parliament equipped with wide competences related to the region, such as fiscal policy, education, organization of local administration, security (regional police) etc. We often refer to our regional constitution of the autonomous Silesian Voivodship (adopted on the 15th of July 1920 by the Polish parliament and cancelled in 1945 by the communists), which indicated 17 domains in which our regional legislative had exclusive competence. At that time this constitutional act was very novel, but of course we are aware that current challenges require different means. Strong regional institutions with independent financing are fundamental. At the moment our regional self-government bodies are weak, deprived of major competences, with an insignificant budget - a vast majority of our taxes is collected and spent by the central government in Warsaw without any influence on the part of local or regional communities.

Which is your strategy in order to achieve those goals? Maybe negotiations with the Polish government or even a constitutional change?

We have adopted a so-called road-map "Autonomy 2020" which points out successive steps towards a substantial amendment of the Polish constitution. Legislative changes are of course necessary to fulfill our goals. We anticipate several means to reach a wide coalition in the Polish parliament that would support our decentralization project. One of them is founding an over-regional political party, gathering regionalists from other parts of Poland. At the moment, thanks to our good score in the last year's regional elections that gave us unprecedented publicity, we observe an increased activity of decentralization-orientated circles. Only during the last 2 months two autonomous movements were founded. People started to believe that our aims are possible to achieve. Before the amendment of the Polish constitution is completed, we have some lesser challenges to face. The historic Upper Silesia is divided into two voivodships/provinces: Slaskie and Opolskie. Slaskie consists only in about 50% of the historic Upper Silesian territory, what has many unfavourable outcomes, such as difficulties in conducting a coherent cultural policy and many more. This division has also a negative influence on the identity of inhabitants of Opolskie, who are gradually ceasing to recognize themselves as Silesians and their province as a part of the Upper Silesia. In our opinion, this political decision was taken according to the rule ‘divide et impera'. That's why we strive for the reconnection of these two voivodships.

What about the German community of Upper Silesia? Does your political movement also target them?

The Silesian Autonomy Movement is targeted at everyone who supports our pro-decentralization project, regardless of their national identity. Among us, there are inhabitants of our region with varied identities - Polish, Silesian as well as German and Czech. We are open to cooperation with everyone.

After the elections in 2010, RAS joined the governmental coalition in the province of Slaskie. What policies is RAS trying to implement from the government in order to fight for Silesian autonomy?

Thanks to our participation in  the management board of the Silesian Voivodship we can operate with a much higher efficiency than until December 2010. At our initiative the Institute for Regional Research was established. This body is working, among other things, on the textbooks that are necessary to finally establish lessons of regional education as a proper school subject in primary and secondary schools. Our representatives are also to be credited for the new appearance of the Silesian Stadium in Chorzów which was re-designed in Upper Silesian colors. It is important for us to restore the presence of regional symbols in the public space. Thanks to us "Industriada" - the Feast of Industrial Heritage was saved. It attracted thousands of people who could become familiar with our forgotten past. This year, the regional authorities for the first time officially announced the Memorial Day of the Upper Silesian Tragedy 1945, when as many as about 100,000 Upper Silesians were forced into deportation to work in the USSR's coal mines.

The activities mentioned above are very important for the Upper Silesian community. However, they don't lead directly to the Silesian autonomy. For the last 66 years, the awareness of our own specific culture and history has been gradually removed. We work hard to recover it. The most important success of the Silesian Autonomy Movement is that a debate about the past, present and future of the Upper Silesia and its place in Poland is constantly present in mass media.

Further information:

Nationalia: Silesian pro-autonomy movement obtains parliamentary seats for the first time ever