European Times Warsaw: Once a little dissident, now a big player

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The Independent Online
SITTING IN her tiny office, dressed in a simple top and skirt, bereft of make-up, cigarette in hand, Helena Luczywo does not fit the Western image of a media tycoon.

But appearances can be deceptive, especially in the hall of mirrors that is still central Europe. For this short, slight woman in her early fifties is one of central Europe's most powerful opinion-formers, helping to guide an often nervous Poland along the bumpy path from Communism to capitalism.

Like the Czech President, Vaclav Havel, and the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, Helena Luczywo is a dissident turned decision-maker.

As deputy editor of Gazeta Wyborcza (Electoral Paper) she is the driving force behind the most successful newspaper in post-Communist central Europe.

The former organ of the opposition to Solidarity in the 1989 elections now sells over half a million copies on weekdays with an extra 200,000 on weekends, an impressive figure for a nation of 40 million. With its clean, sharp design and lively reporting, the newspaper is light years ago from the drab Communist Party sheets of the old regime.

Employing almost 2,500 people, Gazeta Wyborcza publishes 18 local editions, a weekly magazine and supplements for cars, computers, property, jobs and books. Shares in Gazeta's parent company Agora, are traded on both the Warsaw and London stock exchanges. The company, which also has radio and television interests, is worth more than $600m (pounds 375m).

It's a far cry from Ms Luczywo's life as a dissident in the Communist era. To some in the West, fighting Soviet rule seemed glamorous and romantic: surreptitiously passing on grubby samizdat newspapers, flitting between secret printing sites, all the while dodging police tails, but Helena Luczywo does not pine for her clandestine existence.

The writer Timothy Garton Ash described Ms Luczywo as the "Rosa Luxemburg of Solidarity", but she prefers the doctrines of Thatcher to Marx. "I don't miss anything from the underground days," Ms Luczywo said. "We had to waste so much energy avoiding the police. Living under a dictatorship is always a waste of time. Now we can spend that time and energy building something.

"In the last 10 years Poles have experienced the kind of total change that used to happen in the 17th century. Everything is happening at the same time here: firstly the changes in Western societies such as globalisation, computers and civil rights; then we have a totally new system that everyone has to find his place in and at the same time we have to join Nato and the EU."

Poles, like their post- Communist neighbours in central Europe, have discovered that freedom also exacts a high price. "There are huge social differences here which have got much worse in the last two years," Ms Luczywo admits. "If you are from a poor or peasant family, your chances of making it are close to zero."

Not everyone in Poland welcomes the success of the Gazeta empire. The paper has come under fire from both right and left. Others question whether a nascent democracy should allow so much power, both political and economic, to be concentrated in the hands of one media conglomerate.

It is a fear that Ms Luczywo dismisses: "We don't have too much power, and Poland also has a very strong anti-monopoly office, which would tell us if we did. If we are influential it is because of our circulation, but more because of what we say".