Polish satirist has the last laugh Communist bruiser has last laugh

Missing Persons No:36 Jerzy Urban
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The Independent Online
It may be over six years since he lost his job as spokesman of Poland's last Communist government, but Jerzy Urban shows no sign of losing his legendary sense of humour.

Last Wednesday marked the fifth anniversary of the launch of the bitingly satirical Nie magazine and, as its founder and driving force, Mr Urban decided to throw a lavish ball to celebrate.

Guests, who included the man who declared martial law in Poland in 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, and several current ministers, were asked to turn up in something evoking the spirit of the old Communist times. Several drove to the event in a cavalcade of vintage socialist-era cars. Others brought their ration books and rolls of toilet paper, a reminder of when even such basic commodities were in short supply.

Mr Urban, one of the key figures in the administration responsible for getting Poland into such an economic mess, beamed throughout. He had genuine cause for celebration. Much to his own initial surprise, Nie, Poland's no-holds-barred answer to Private Eye, has proved a phenomenal success, with a weekly circulation now standing at over 700,000.

For someone whose loyalty to the old Communist regime was unswerving, Mr Urban has negotiated the treacherous waters of capitalism with consummate skill. Last year, he personally saw a pre-tax profit of over pounds 1.6m. "I enjoy being rich and I enjoy being independent," says Mr Urban. "But I am essentially a political animal and I miss not being directly involved in government."

When Mr Urban was appointed government spokesman in mid-1981, Poland was in crisis. The Solidarity trade union, formed a year earlier, was pressing for democratic reforms and threatening to bring the country to its knees through strikes. Mr Urban firmly approved of the December 1981 imposition of martial law under which Solidarity was banned and many of its leaders imprisoned. Even when martial law was lifted in 1983, Mr Urban remained one of Solidarity's most acerbic critics, frequently using his weekly televised press conferences to pour scorn on the union and its leader, Lech Walesa.

Mr Urban's quick wit set him apart from nearly all of his Communist peers and certainly made his press conferences interesting. Millions of Poles tuned in to watch, but although they often laughed, many found his brutal style offensive.

With the end fast approaching, Mr Urban represented the government in the "Round Table" talks with Solidarity in 1989 that paved the way to the country's first partially-free elections for over 40 years. He stood for parliament in the June poll that followed, but, like all his colleagues, was crushed in the landslide victory for Solidarity. A little over one year later, he watched in horror as the man he loved to ridicule, Lech Walesa, won the presidency.

For Mr Urban, there did not appear to be too much left to laugh about. But with his political career effectively over, he decided to return to his original calling - journalism - and to launch a satirical new weekly which would pour scorn on the country's new leaders.

The first edition of Nie (translated as "No") rolled off the presses in October 1990. It was like nothing ever seen in Poland before. Its language was coarse and colourful; its cartoons and pictures innovative and often sexually explicit and its mockery of President Walesa was relentless.

"Ours was the only paper that conveyed the sense of disappointment many felt in the new authorities and exposed the new cases of corruption," Mr Urban says. "It also coincided with fatigue for the sort of political debate that had been raging for the previous 10 years. People wanted their politics in a more simplified form. And they wanted some humour."

There is an obvious irony in the fact that the former Communist Party mouthpiece lost no time in making full use of Poland's new found press freedoms. Nie's relentless lampooning of the politicians of the right, moreover, undoubtedly helped pave the way for the dramatic success of the reformed communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), which swept back to power in Poland's 1993 parliamentary elections.

The paper is also quite clearly supporting the SLD leader, Aleksander Kwasniewski, in his bid to topple Mr Walesa in next month's presidential election.

Mr Urban, 59, is probably too tainted with the brush of the old regime ever to be eligible for political office again. But as our interview comes to an end, the phone rings. It is Mr Kwasniewski.