Elisabeth Haid, July 4th, 2020
This would not be possible in any other Polish city! Such was the opinion of political commentators in local newspapers of the Eastern Galician city Kołomyja, referring to local political practices. Among others, the following episode gave cause for such statements. In August 1923, the mayor, Dr. Jurkiewicz, resigned due to public criticism by his political opponents. The district captain appointed a new mayor, namely the director of the local savings bank, Karol Balicki. Moreover, the change of the mayor was accompanied by the reorganization of Kołomyja’s city council and the appointment of new council members. So far so good, this was nothing exceptional in interwar Poland. Even though the constitution of the Polish Republic provided for municipal elections, in many cases these were not put into practice until the late 1920s. Instead, either the existing municipal councils remained in office after the establishment of the Polish nation state or the district authorities appointed new ones.
The latter was especially the case in multi-ethnic Eastern Galicia. This former Habsburg province had experienced several political changes in the last few years that also left their mark on local politics: the Russian occupations during the First World War, the reconquest by the Austro-Hungarian army, the dissolution of the Habsburg Monarchy, the rival Ukrainian and Polish nation building projects, the establishment of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Polish-Ukrainian war, and finally the incorporation into the Polish Republic in 1919 were all felt locally. Most of these changes of rule brought about changes of local representative bodies. In Eastern Galicia, the dissolution and appointment of municipal councils by state authorities was a common practice rather than an exception in the postwar years. What was so special about the 1923 reorganization of the city council in Kołomyja? What was the reason for such harsh criticism precisely from the Gazeta Kołomyjska, a local Polish newspaper?
To be sure, the Gazeta Kołomyjska declared itself in favor of democratic principles. Nevertheless, the newspaper had no objections to intervention by the Polish state authorities for the “benefit of the Polish people and state.” In principle, the editors justified the replacement of elected bodies by appointed ones in the light of ongoing border conflicts and the uncertainty of Polish rule in Eastern Galicia. (Though the region had been de facto incorporated into the Polish Republic in 1919, its borders were internationally recognized only in 1923.) Accordingly, the Polish newspaper criticized not so much the fact that mayor and council were appointed. The current city council and Mayor Dr. Jurkiewicz, favored by the Gazeta Kołomyjska, had been appointed by the Polish state authorities as well—though allegedly in agreement with the local political parties. What caused the newspaper’s indignation was the assessment that the district captain did not act on behalf of the Polish people, but on the contrary supported the “machinations” of an interest group which felt no commitment to the Polish Republic. According to the Gazeta Kołomyjska the change of the city government in 1923 had been instigated by members of the local financial and prewar political elites, namely by a strange coalition of the “neutral” Jewish money oligarchy of Kołomyja and some power-hungry Polish nationalists.
It should be noted that “neutral” was definitively a negative attribute in the eyes of the Polish newspaper, as it referred to Jews who had declared neutrality in the Polish-Ukrainian conflict instead of supporting Polish interests. Jews were the largest demographic group in the city (followed by Poles and Ukrainians). Moreover, they played an important role among the local economic elites. Most of the merchants in Kołomyja were Jews, and the few industrialists were made up of Jews and Poles. Even though the Gazeta Kołomyjska was devoted to the Polish national cause, regularly advertised Christian-Polish enterprises, and sometimes took on anti-Semitic tones, it could not ignore that the Jewish population was an important part of the city. However, the Polish newspaper clearly favored cooperation with pronouncedly pro-Polish Jews and condemned allegedly nationally conscious Poles who collaborated with these “neutral” Jewish elites or with local Zionists. (This latter group, by the way, represented a major political movement in Kołomyja). In particular, the newspaper criticized that the district captain lent an ear to this “clique” instead of heeding the opinion of the “core of the Polish and Jewish society”.
Thus, one of the main points of this press campaign was the allegation that local politics developed behind the scenes and that it was a certain “clique” or “coterie” that directed the affairs of the city. While the newspaper praised the work of Mayor Dr. Jurkiewicz and, in particular, highlighted his services to the post-war reconstruction of the city, it accused the new city government of representing its own narrow interests and those of a small elite rather than attending to the well-being of the city. The Gazeta Kołomyjska identified one of the richest men in Kołomyja as a “protector” or gray eminence in local politics who was able to install his followers in the new city government in 1923. Moreover, the newspaper alleged the involvement of the “clique of the magistrate”—that is, long-standing office holders of the municipal authorities—in this intrigue. In this respect, the episode in 1923 is typical for political discourses and criticism of local politics in Kołomyja. “Clique” or “coterie” were the most frequent terms in local political discourses. Besides the “clique of the magistrate,” the “clique of the kahal”—the leading figures of the Jewish religious community—figured rather prominently in local newspapers. Overall, the different local newspapers drew a picture of influential “coteries” that forged alliances and controlled local politics by means of promises and the exertion of pressure.
Some commentators also used more dramatic comparisons to intensify their criticism. Dr. Schorr, for example, a Jew and leading figure of the local Polish Socialist Party, accused the local Zionists of acting “in the manner of the Neapolitan Camorra,” terrorizing the local Jewish population and putting pressure on those who did not bow to their political plans. Accusations of this sort often were mutual. The Gazeta Kołomyjska, for example, depicted Balicki, the new mayor in 1923, as a puppet of the „clique of the magistrate“ and of the Jewish money oligarchy, whereas Balicki called his detractors a “clique” who did not accept their loss of power and therefore launched a slander campaign against him. We should keep in mind that these allegations were an element of political rhetoric that was used by different groups against their respective political opponents. Nevertheless, the frequent allegations that elite networks and insider relationships functioned as decisive elements of local politics were probably not entirely unfounded.
Another recurring lament was that, notwithstanding all the political upheavals of the recent past, local politics in Kołomyja remained largely the same as in imperial times. In particular, the Gazeta Kołomyjska criticized that the long-established economic and prewar political elites regained quickly power in 1923. The newspaper argued that the new city council was controlled by the same people who had ruled in Austrian times. And this type of elite was by no means in line with the ideas of a Polish nation state, according to the Polish newspaper. Instead, the city should be ruled by representatives of the “national and state element” of the local society, that is, by honest men devoted to the Polish people and state. Thus, the Gazeta Kołomyjska condemned the actions of the district captain, who was a representative of the Polish state and obliged to act on behalf of the Polish nation, but instead had entrusted the city government to a faithless clique in the pay of Poland’s enemies.
Using these arguments, the dissolved city council appealed to the higher authorities in Stanisławów to overrule the decisions of the district captain, who was apparently too involved in the intrigues of local interest groups. The fact that Kołomyja was a district capital and thus seat of the district authorities probably facilitated the integration of the district captain into the local elite and eased his cooperation with them. However, the ex-city councilors’ protests were in vain, and Mayor Balicki and his team remained in office.
The topic came up again four years later when the first municipal elections of the interwar period were held. But the fact that the slightly modified Austrian electoral system—a tax-based curial system—still applied privileged the local economic elites and their candidates again. Opposition candidates succeeded only in the new general curia introduced for those who were not entitled to vote in any of the tax-based curiae. Thus, the elections in 1927 more or less confirmed the existing city council and Mayor Balicki. Opposition newspapers, which had expressed some optimism for the election, complained that nothing had changed in local politics and that a collusive agreement of local elites had succeeded again.
Overall, prewar local elites, namely economic elites, proved to be remarkably persistent in the interwar period. This was particularly noticeable in Kołomyja, where unlike most Galician cities, it was not Poles but rather Jews who were at the top of the elite ladder. Complaints about their political practices based on collusive agreements and personal interests rather than on political or national beliefs were just as constant. However, the assumption that this would not be possible in any other Polish city is unlikely.
Main source: Gazeta Kołomyjska, August 25 –December 1, 1923
Other local newspapers: Покуття, Nasz Głos, Коломийські Вісти, Покутське Слово