Commentary Magazine

The Great Polish Experiment

Contrary to some of the more exuberant expectations bubbling in the wake of the Revolution of 1989, history has been going full blast in Central and Eastern Europe ever since the breaching of the Berlin Wall marked the demise of Stalin’s external empire and opened the death watch for Marxism-Leninism in Europe. And despite the best efforts of the fourth estate in the developed democracies to portray the old Warsaw Pact as a political and economic basket case in which great masses of people now look with fond nostalgia on the Communist past, there has been considerable progress toward fulfilling the great expectations of four years ago.

Politically, the turn toward democracy seems secure in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the former East Germany. Not only have the basic institutions of democratic governance been established in these countries; they have proven their tensile strength through a series of elections in which power has been peacefully transferred between contesting parties.

Even more striking has been the economic success registered by several former Soviet satellites. Hungary, which was in the best position to achieve market “takeoff,” has continued to attract considerable Western investment. The Czech Republic, which leaped into rapid and comprehensive privatization under the leadership of Prime Minister Václav Klaus, seems poised to turn the corner into a bright economic future. But it is Poland, the test-bed of post-Communist economic “shock therapy,” that continues to amaze. For Poland had the highest rate of growth in gross national product in Europe in 1993—not in Central Europe, but in Europe, period (and this despite the protectionism that prevents Polish goods from getting into West European markets).

These striking accomplishments have gone largely unremarked in a West that seems to have lost interest in Central and Eastern Europe—in part, because of some undeniably serious problems that have also beset the region. The same Poland where things seemed to be going so well economically returned two parties of ex-Communists to power in September 1993: a disturbing development anticipated the previous year in both Lithuania and Bulgaria. Czechoslovakia went through a “velvet divorce” on January 1, 1993; and while the Czech Republic is arguably better off today than if it had remained trapped in the protracted agonies of a loveless marriage, it is not at all clear that Slovakia has benefited from its rapid drive for sovereignty.

Despite massive infusions of capital from its far wealthier brethren west of the Elbe River, the former German Democratic Republic has suffered considerable difficulties—including the outbreak of neo-Nazi agitation—in making the transition to democracy and the free market. Romania remains firmly in the control of former Communists whose disentanglement from their previous political and economic views is not self-evidently clear. The late Yugoslavia has, of course, descended into ethnic barharism and slaughter, but irredentist claims based on ethnic loyalty have also been felt beyond the hinterlands of Southeastern Europe. For example, Hungary (the country that is perhaps farthest along the road to democratic and market consolidation) has gotten itself enmeshed in ethnically-based conflict with two of its neighbors, Romania and Slovakia.



For all that they have taken some of the romantic glow off the events of the annus mirabilis, 1989, these sundry crises should not have come as a surprise to sober-minded Western observers and diplomats. Our American democracy, after all, did not spring, full-blown, from the brow (or pen) of Thomas Jefferson, or from the pages of Lord Cornwallis’s instrument of surrender. Indeed, America went through decades of democratic growing pains that culminated in a sanguinary civil war.

Nor do the difficulties that even the most advanced Central European countries (Poland, the Czech Republic. Hungary) have experienced in consolidating their transition to democracy and the free market invalidate the thesis that a revolution of conscience, a genuine moral revolution, preceded and made possible the nonviolent political revolution of 1989. This revolution did not mean the end of history. Rather, it meant the restoration of history to its normal rhythms and patterns—which include the possibility, now actualized in every one of these societies, of making a hash of things from time to time.

Throughout the 1980’s, whenever one asked the people we used to call “dissidents” what they wanted, one invariably got the same reply: “We want a normal society.” And that is precisely what they have gotten. But Central Europe’s is a singular normality, which continues to be profoundly shaped and misshaped by the economic, political, social, cultural, and (preeminently) moral detritus of the Communist period, as well as by the glorious experience of tyranny cast off.

Communism wrought tremendous damage, not simply to the physical environment of Central and Eastern Europe, but to its moral ecology as well. And it would have been naive in the extreme to expect that so much damage could be repaired in the twinkling of an eye. Given the colossal destruction Communism wrought on men’s souls, as well as on the economies of nations, the truly remarkable thing is that large parts of Central and Eastern Europe have done as well as they have over the past four years.




The experience of Poland, the linchpin of the Revolution of 1989, exemplifies in sharp relief this contemporary experience of a “peculiar normality” in Central and Eastern Europe. Happily, and in contrast to the deprecatory reporting on the Third Polish Republic that has too often characterized elite Western media commentary since 1989, we now have a sympathetic and insightful analysis of the trials and triumphs of Poland (and other countries in the region) in The Birth of Freedom, by the veteran Newsweek correspondent Andrew Nagorski.1

Nagorski’s book is all the more persuasive because he understands that the crux of the post-Communist problem for the peoples of Central and Eastern Europe lies, as the Czech President, Vaclav Havel, once put it, in “driving totalitarianism out of our souls.” Accordingly, Nagorski is particularly acute in depicting the habits of the heart that have made the processes of democratic and free-market consolidation so difficult for so many people, even amid palpable political and economic successes.

Imagine, for example, building a functioning market economy in a country where, for decades, bribing officials was the only way to extract a modicum of service, and where cheating on purchases or taxes was regarded as almost a “noble activity,” virtually a “patriotic duty.”

Imagine, further, the difficulties of even the most energetic and tenacious entrepreneur in a situation in which commercial banking had not existed for over 40 years; in which most people had no concept of the value of time; in which there was no such thing as a “customer”; in which commercial law did not exist; in which there was no stock market; in which very few people had any notion of wealth-creation; and in which accounting was one of the “creative arts” (as Nagorski whimsically, and accurately, puts it): little wonder that, in these rude circumstances, flagrantly corrupt business practices—which have led to Poland’s being labeled the “Wild East”—have gone hand-in-hand with a great outburst of economic energy.

Imagine, too, a country in which (as Poland’s first post-Communist interior minister once said) “the police were armed to fight the society, but not to do police work”: little wonder that a crime wave has left its imprint on Polish society after 1989. And imagine, finally, a country in which “tolerance” and “fraternity” were ubiquitous terms of Communist Newspeak: little wonder that, in the new climate of freedom, crude expressions of racial, ethnic, or ideological deprecation are not infrequently encountered among otherwise decent people.

The politics of freedom have proved every bit as tangled as Poland’s rapid transition to the market. And here, it is not simply the Communist period but the Polish national experience over the past two centuries that has required the Poles to play political catch-up ball ever since 1989.

Nagorski quotes Ewa Letowska, post-Communist Poland’s first human-rights commissioner and ombudsman, on the distinctive history whose unhappy byproducts rapidly became evident after the Communist crackup:

This is a country that missed the benefits of the 19th century. It was in the 19th century that democratic institutions took shape in the world: the administrative court system developed in France, parliamentary democracy was consolidated in England, the period of conquests ended in the United States, and a more decent order prevailed. But Poland was partitioned in the 19th century, and all those institutions were foreign.

Poland also missed the experience of forming and sustaining broad-based political parties. And that gap—coupled with the historic Polish tendency to divide already fragile parties over relatively minor points of ideology—has given the people who ran Poland under Communism, and who then inherited its only existing political machinery, a comparative political advantage.2

That the ex-Communists (or “post-Communists,” as they are usually called in Poland) retained their organizational and financial assets is itself a classic example of the dilemma of unintended consequences in politics. Shortly after the June 1989 elections that brought Tadeusz Mazowiecki to power as Poland’s first postwar non-Communist Prime Minister, the decision was taken to draw a “thick line” between past and present: to get on with the post-Communist future without a serious legal (i.e., criminal) accounting for the depredations of the Communist period. However one sorts out the merits and demerits of this bitterly controversial strategy, it is clear that one of its results was to enable ex-Communists to recoup their political position in fairly short order.

Poland’s traditional difficulties in mastering the virtue of prudence have helped turn the Poles into one of history’s most romantic peoples; that cultural predisposition has also led to catastrophe for the Polish state on more than one occasion. The great question today is how Poland’s current democratic experiment might merge the moral passions that made possible the Revolution of 1989 with the prudence that is essential to securing the future in freedom.




That, in part, was what was being contested in the parliamentary elections last September that left the ex-Communists firmly in control. And while this outcome was not altogether reassuring, neither did it represent a volte-face on the road to a secure Polish democracy.

Actually, what happened in September was less the result of a dramatic rejection of the economic and political reforms of the past four years than of a poorly conceived new electoral law. The goal of the new law was to break the pattern of party fragmentation that had made coalition-building such a difficult business since 1989. The instruments adopted were 5- and 8-percent thresholds for individual parties or coalitions of parties to enter the parliament, and “bonus seats” for the big winners among the larger parties.

The thresholds worked: the new parliament has seven parties and groups, down from 29 in the previous legislature. But the “bonus-seat” plan backfired badly, giving the two leading ex-Communist parties, the Democratic Left Alliance and the Polish Peasants’ Party, 66 percent of the seats in the all-important Sejm (the lower house) on the basis of a mere 36 percent of the vote.

It would, therefore, be a considerable exaggeration to suggest that the September elections signaled a fundamental reversal in Poland’s post-Communist politics. Still, the ex-Communists did get 36 percent of the vote. What explains that striking phenomenon in a country of which Stalin cracked that introducing the Poles to Communism was like “fitting a cow with a saddle”? Conversations I had in Poland, a month after the elections, suggested that four factors were in play.

The first and, by virtually all accounts, the most decisive was what might be termed “social insecurity,” especially among the elderly, the peasants, and workers in the threatened smokestack industries. Although we are not accustomed to thinking of them as such, Communist societies were in fact forms of the welfare state: they promised, and delivered, jobs, health care, and retirement benefits. Even if the jobs were useless, the health care grossly inadequate, and the pensions paltry, they were there; and, the nomenklatura excepted, society’s benefits were distributed equally (which, to be sure, meant equally poorly) throughout the great mass of the population.

Hence the very success of Poland’s economic reform has created difficult cultural and political circumstances. The courageous decision to make the Polish currency convertible—the sine qua non of the positive growth rates of the past eighteen months or so—inevitably meant that pensions and other forms of fixed income depreciated in value. The successes enjoyed by many small (and larger) businesses may have created a far wider availability of consumer goods; but this also meant the beginning of significant income disparities. Viewed from a macro level, Poland’s estimated 5-percent 1993 growth rate looks impressive indeed; but from the ranks of the unemployed (13 percent or so, at present), reform can look like just another scam.

In general, too many Poles continue to regard economics as a zero-sum game; too few understand how much has been accomplished in a relatively brief period of market transition; too many evince a certain nostalgia for the bogus “equality” of the Communist period; and many are genuinely, and understandably, frightened about their place, or lack thereof, in the brave new world of the market. Fear of freedom, to put it bluntly but accurately, was a significant factor in the ex-Communist comeback.

Several observers, most notably Abraham Brumberg, have argued that the September elections also represented a sharp, even biting, rejection of the public role of the Catholic Church since the Revolution of 1989—a rejection that Brumberg interprets as a mark of maturation on the part of Polish society. The reality is both more complex and more interesting.

Among some voters, there was surely disagreement with the Church’s substantive positions on issues like abortion, voluntary religious education in public schools, the reinstitution of the chaplaincy in the armed forces, and the regulation of the electronic media. Yet when one considers that levels of Catholic practice in Poland remain extraordinarily high, it seems more plausible to suggest that, for the majority of the electorate, the quarrel was not so much with the Church’s substantive positions as it was with the style of the Church’s interventions in public life—its perceived lack of democratic etiquette in advancing those positions under the new circumstances of freedom. (More about that in a moment.)



The aforementioned financial and organizational advantages enjoyed by the parties of ex-Communists are the third factor cited by veteran Polish political observers trying to parse the motivations at work in September’s voting. But to these advantages in political hardware should also be added the unavoidable reality of self-interest.

Pre-1989 Poland was not one vast Nottingham Forest, in which virtually everyone played Robin Hood to General Jaruzelski’s sheriff. The Polish Communist party had, at the end, about two million members; and when one considers that each of those members had a family as well as a network of friends and connections, one begins to see how a powerful interest group, committed to retaining its accustomed position of privilege in society, quite naturally formed, even in the wake of the Communist party’s official demise.

Moreover, this was an interest group whose key members had had their country’s only experience of party discipline: another asset in playing the game of democratic politics. Further, the ex-Communists had the advantages conveyed (at least over the short term) by a cynicism that masked itself as pragmatism. While the parties of the old Solidarity coalition were splintering over interesting, but often esoteric, points of political philosophy, the ex-Communists presented themselves as experienced and practical managers who had learned from the errors of the past and whose heads were not stuck in the clouds of theory.

The fourth factor in the defeat of the parties which might have been expected to form the second government led by Hanna Suchocka was, of course, those parties’ own mistakes in office over the past four years. The crackup of Solidarity’s grand coalition, within a year of the annus mirabilis; the subsequent machinations of Lech Walesa, which resulted in his election to the Polish presidency but at the price of a further rift within the old camp of the anti-Communist resistance; President Walesa’s inability, which many attribute to an overweening ego, to get along with several Prime Ministers; a first post-Communist election law that took proportional representation to virtually unparalleled altitudes of silliness, and the resulting instability of governing coalitions; the bitterness of parliamentary rows over a host of issues, including abortion; the failure to explain to the broad mass of the public, in a persuasive way, the imperatives of economic reform—all of this left a bad taste in many mouths, not least because of the high hopes that had been raised by the resilience and political ecumenicity of the Solidarity resistance throughout the 1980’s.

And so ex-Communists are now in firm control of the Polish parliament, only four years after the Revolution of 1989. This is galling (and, to many Poles, embarrassing), but it will, most probably, not be fatal to Polish democracy or to the consolidation of a market economy in Poland. Excessive spending by the new government—Polish COLA’s, SO to speak—could set off an inflationary spiral; hard decisions involving useless smokestack industries may be deferred; rates of economic growth may slow; there may be pressures on electronic media that have not been adequately privatized; and the ex-nomenklatura network could gradually insinuate itself more thoroughly into the institutions of business, labor, culture, and governance. But Poland seems to have made a firm decision for democracy. And too many people have benefited from the (admittedly rugged) economic reforms of the past four years to imagine that a return to any form of command economy is possible.

Poland, in short, is quite probably going to make it: and one of the main reasons for that is the continued vitality, within a changing situation, of the Catholic Church.




Hard by the church of the Sisters of the Visitation on Krakówskie Przedmiescie, a broad avenue leading into Warsaw’s reconstructed Old Town, there is a great bronze statue whose granite pedestal reads: “Stefan Kardynal Wyszynski Prymas Polski”—Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, Primate of Poland. The cardinal is seated and is wearing, not the Renaissance robes of a politically astute cardinal-regent, but the liturgical vestments of a bishop celebrating Mass. His face combines sternness with confidence, and reflects a deep faith tested by a great sorrow.

Cardinal Wyszynski will loom large in any history of 20th-century Christianity, indeed of 20th-century Europe. If Poland was the key to the collapse of the Yalta imperial system; and if, as virtually everyone in Poland attests, the trigger for the nonviolent revolution of conscience that made Solidarity possible was the visit of Pope John Paul II to Poland in June 1979—then the man most singularly responsible for building the kind of Church that could produce both John Paul II and the millions who greeted him on his triumphant return to his Polish homeland was Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski.

Wyszynski died in 1981 and Polish Catholicism has been struggling with his legacy ever since. In order to preserve the integrity of the Church against the Communist regime’s relentless efforts to penetrate it, Cardinal Wyszynski ran a very tight ship. Debates and disagreements were aired strictly behind closed doors; in public, the Church spoke with one voice, the voice of the primate. The Wyszynski Church—authoritarian, unified, disciplined, intensely patriotic, not given to great intellectual speculations, deeply committed to fostering popular (meaning, primarily, Marian) piety, resistant to internal changes that might provide the regime an opening to make mischief (or worse)—was, most Poles admit, the right kind of Church for the period of the great cardinal’s leadership (1948-81). In those hard days, the Church was the custodian of Polish nationhood, during yet another alien occupation; and Cardinal Wyszynski played, to the hilt, the ancient role of the primate as interrex—the guardian of the nation during an interim period between legitimate rulers.

But what about the Church’s role today? How can the Church honor Wyszynski’s legacy while transcending it? How can the Church deliberately break the monopoly of institutional virtue it enjoyed for 50 years? In the aftermath of the Revolution of 1989, the Church’s leadership believed, correctly, that it had been a major factor in Poland’s 50 years of resistance to two occupying totalitarian powers; and it was eager to return to “normal.” But what was “normal”? The Church’s established position in the interwar republic dominated by Marshal Józef Pilsudski? That seemed “normal” to some Church leaders, but neither normal nor appropriate to others, who had more thoroughly internalized the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on religious freedom and the constitutional state. The “normality” of the Church in Western Europe, where theologians engaged in all sorts of speculations and the Church was a cultural ward of the state, but Sunday Mass attendance figures hovered around 10 percent? Nobody in Polish Catholicism wanted that. What, then, was the model?

There is now an impressive consensus among many Church leaders that the tack taken in the immediate post-Communist period was clumsy, inappropriate, and ineffective. The omnipresence of the Church at occasions ranging from great events of state to the opening of a new Warsaw Burger King reduced prayer and religious ceremonial to trivialities—even obtrusive trivialities.

Nor did a Church leadership accustomed simply to laying down the law take easily to the forms and styles of democratic etiquette. It was not the case that most Poles bitterly disagreed with the Church’s positions on a host of fevered public issues; but they wanted the Church to ask, to persuade, to engage in a genuine exchange of views rather than to demand. The issue was not the creation of a “democratic Church”; the issue was the religious leadership’s capacity to embody a public Church that was not a partisan Church—and a public Church manifestly committed to the arts of democratic persuasion and dialogue.

In short, the people of Poland seemed to want the kind of Church described by John Paul II in his 1990 encyclical, Redemptoris Missio, when the Polish pope wrote that “The Church only proposes; she imposes nothing.”



The historic turn toward this kind of Church accelerated in January 1993, when the entire Polish episcopate came to Rome for the visits that all Catholic bishops are required to make every five years. By that time, the inability of senior members of the episcopate to define a new style of public engagement had caused the Church’s public position to erode badly: from the most trusted institution in the country, according to opinion polling, it had now slipped to fourth place, behind the army, the ombudsman, and the police. Clearly, something had to be done, and in January, John Paul began to do it.

In his address to the group of bishops led by Cardinal Wyszynski’s successor as primate, Cardinal Józef Glemp (who seemed to have found the transition “beyond Wyszynski” especially difficult), the pope flatly and unambiguously rejected ecclesiastical partisanship, stating that “the Church is not a political party nor is she identified with any political party; she is above them, open to all people of good will, and no political party can claim the right to represent her.”

There were, then, to be no more attempts to align the Church with particular parties or candidates, and, to get down to local cases, no more priests instructing parishioners how to vote (which would require discipline of both priests and parishioners, for in peasant areas it was often the latter who asked for electoral marching orders). The modern social doctrine of the Church, not nostalgic visions of a romanticized Polish past, would be the substance of the Church’s public stance. Persuasion and argument, public rather than sectarian in character, would be the modus operandi. For John Paul these were matters of principle, not of pragmatic accommodation. And they soon began to have an impact on the Church’s approach to public life.

Several months after the visits to Rome, the new approach was put to the test in an election for the position of general secretary of the bishops’ conference. Two candidates supported by Cardinal Glemp were defeated, and the victor was a younger bishop, Tadeusz Pieronek, who had had a long experience in consultative Church bodies and who was clearly identified with the “John Paul II wing” of the Polish Church.3

Three months after Pieronek’s accession to the general secretaryship of the bishops’ conference, the episcopate issued a national pastoral letter on the forthcoming elections, read in all churches on Sunday, June 27. The letter called Polish Catholics to a prudent exercise of the responsibilities of citizenship, but, following the line of John Paul’s January address, insisted that the Church could not be identified with any party, coalition of parties, or candidate. And, in a challenge to the clericalism and anticlericalism that have been staple features of Polish culture for centuries, the letter emphasized the primary role of the laity in carrying the Church’s social teaching into the public square.

Three weeks after the pastoral letter, Bishop Pieronek engaged in a wide-ranging public conversation with the former dissident intellectual, Adam Michnik, that sprawled over three pages of Gazeta Wyborcza, the leading Polish daily that Michnik now edits. The dialogue—which centered on the relationship between moral truth and democratic practice—was candid, open, and decent-spirited: the antithesis of the ecclesiastical authoritarianism and intellectual/journalistic anticlerical secularism of the past. Michnik, who had been one of the Church’s sharpest critics since 1989 (having previously been a key figure in the rapprochement between the Polish intelligentsia and the Church that helped make the resistance of the 1980’s possible), pronounced himself much impressed, as indeed he should have been. One would look long and hard to find such an intense conversation, conducted at such depth and on such serious issues, in any American newspaper.

The momentum toward the fulfillment of the “Wyszynski Church” in the “John Paul II Church” will continue, according to any number of indicators. Next spring, the Polish episcopate will elect a new president; among the leading candidates is the Archbishop of Gniezno, Henryk Muszynski, who has been the key episcopal figure in confronting Polish anti-Semitism past and present. New Church-related institutions are being created, including the Center for Political Thought in Cracow—a think tank dedicated to bringing Anglo-American political and economic thinking into active conversation with the social teaching of John Paul II.

Venerable Catholic journals, including the Warsaw-based monthly, Wiez (“Link”), and the Cracow weekly, Tygodnik Powszechny (“Universal Weekly”), have also taken up the cause of Polish/ American Catholic intellectual dialogue. The Dominican publishing house, w drodze, recently put out Polish translations of works by two American Catholic thinkers, Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus (one of Novak’s books, Freedom with Justice: Catholic Thought and Liberal Institutions, was, in October, a leading best-seller in Poland4). Indeed, there is a cadre of Polish Catholic intellectuals, clergy, and lay activists who find in America the intriguing possibility of a nonpartisan but public Church in a thoroughly modern but intensely religious society.



The Church in Poland is, like Polish society at large, living out a fascinating question: how can a liberal democratic state and a free economy be created on the foundations of an intact Catholic culture? That has never been done before, but there are reasons to be hopeful about Poland’s chances of pulling it off. For the past two centuries, in Catholic societies (or pluralistic societies with a significant Catholic population), transitions to democracy and the free market were undertaken in the face of the official Church’s professed nervousness about the limited constitutional state, religious liberty, and capitalism. But at the Second Vatican Council, Roman Catholicism made a decisive and historic break with its traditional fondness for the altar-and-throne arrangements of the ancien régime. And in John Paul II’s bold 1991 encyclical, Centesimus Annus, the magisterium of the Church endorsed the “free economy” as an expression of the creativity of human beings made in the image and likeness of God.

All this means that the great Polish experiment will not be conducted with the society looking nervously over its shoulder, so to speak, at a skeptical Church. Rather, the vision of the free society developed by John Paul in Centesimus Annus is ahead of the curve in the contemporary Polish debate, and thus can act as a magnet toward successful reforms, rather than as a brake on them.

No one knows, of course, whether Poland will make it in the 1990’s. American indifference, West European trade barriers, Russian turmoil, and the deep wounds inflicted on Polish psyches and souls by Communism may yet combine to frustrate the best hopes of Poland’s democrats, entrepreneurs, and reforming Church leaders. But, against the historical grain, I am inclined to optimism. I am even inclined to think that the successful establishment of democracy and a free economy in Poland will take place through, not around, the Catholic Church. Poland has changed, dramatically, and for the better, since 1989. So has Polish Catholicism. And out of those changes may yet come a distinctive model of the free society, where vibrant religious conviction sets the foundation on which may be pursued liberty, justice, and prosperity for all.


1 Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $23.00.

2 This advantage was further amplified by infusions of cash from Swiss bank accounts established pre-1989 by a prudent nomenklatura elite. Nagorski notes that, “On January 29, 1990, when the Polish Communist party officially dissolved itself, banks reported that they were holding $11.5 million in its name, mostly in Swiss francs. On February 27, 1991, when a law on the confiscation of the party's property came into force, the accounts showed only $4,000 left.”

3 Difficult though some Westerners evidently find it to believe, John Paul is regarded by some Polish ecclesiastics today as a dangerous innovator, even a radical.

4 The Dominicans, no slouches at marketing, gave the translation a more provocative title, Liberalism: Friend or Enemy of the Church? The liberalism in question here is, of course, Tocquevillian and Actonian, not Clintonesque.

About the Author

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and the author most recently of God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (HarperCollins).

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