Home The Washington Diplomat September 2010 Marking 30 Years of Solidarity, Poland Revives Push for Democracy

Marking 30 Years of Solidarity, Poland Revives Push for Democracy

Marking 30 Years of Solidarity, Poland Revives Push for Democracy

Underground, a woman in drab clothing wears a ring of toilet paper rolls around her neck like a trophy. She just emerged from a grocery store with barely any groceries, its barren shelves lined with an occasional egg or stale loaf of bread — though absurdly, jars of useless vinegar abound.

A photograph from the exhibit “Roads to Freedom” shows the shipyard workers in Gdansk whose strikes 30 years ago as part of the Solidarity movement helped to topple Poland’s Soviet communist government in 1989, setting the stage for the fall of communism throughout Eastern Europe.

Meanwhile, above ground, billboards that advertise luxury spa treatments reflect against a gleaming skyscraper, which stands not far from a medieval gem teeming with tourists from around the world.

The toilet paper-laden woman is actually a mannequin in the exhibition “Roads to Freedom,” which chronicles the Solidarity (Solidarnosc) movement that liberated Poland from Soviet communism. The exhibit resides in Solidarity’s birthplace, the Baltic port city of Gdansk, not far from the Lenin shipyards where 30 years ago workers rose up against the Soviet puppet authorities, setting the stage for the fall of communism throughout Eastern Europe in the ensuing next decade.

Those shipyard strikes are detailed in vivid photographs throughout “Roads to Freedom,” which also recreates the depressing realities of daily communist life, from threadbare grocery stores to rancid bathrooms.

In stark contrast above ground, Gdansk is a thriving microcosm of Poland’s post-communist transformation — which will be showcased this month as the country marks the 30th anniversary of the Solidarity movement, which formally took shape between August and September of 1980.

That anniversary is both a time to celebrate Poland’s historic accomplishments and take stock of what they mean in a post-Cold War world. There is of course plenty to celebrate: A member of the European Union and NATO, Poland is a firmly entrenched democracy that has largely bucked the global financial downturn to become one of Europe’s healthiest economies. It also recently conducted a smooth presidential election following the devastating plane crash that killed the president, first lady and a huge swath of the country’s political elite — a national tragedy that could have easily plunged a lesser democracy into full-blown crisis (also see “Tested Yet Again By Tragedy, Poland Exhibits Its Perseverance” cover profile in the May 2010 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

Yet with Solidarity’s 30th anniversary, Poland is also looking outward, examining whether any lessons from its success story can be applied to other nations, possibly to some of its neighbors in the post-Soviet sphere where democracy has yet to take hold. The country is also quietly trying to shine a light on a movement sometimes not given its due as the catalyst for tearing down the Iron Curtain, often living in the shadows of the Berlin Wall. Finally, the Polish government is working to preserve the memory of what life was really like behind that curtain for a younger generation of Poles more accustomed to reading their newspapers on the Internet than using them as substitutes for toilet paper, a common practice in communist heydays.

This generational divide was on full display during the presidential runoff on July 4 that pitted Poland’s acting president, Bronislaw Komorowski, against Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a former prime minister from the right-wing opposition Law and Justice party whose twin brother, President Lech Kaczynski, was killed in the April 10 plane crash in Smolensk, Russia — the event that triggered the snap election.

The race was much closer than many had predicted, although Komorowski, a moderate conservative from the ruling Civic Platform party, edged out a victory over the often-combative Kaczynski (who then proceeded to skip Komorowski’s swearing-in ceremony in a show of lingering tensions).

Komorowski’s win strengthens the pro-business administration of Prime Minister Donald Tusk, whose Civic Party now fully controls the government. Although the prime minister holds most of the real political power anyway, Tusk often butted heads with Lech Kaczynski, a social conservative who favored strong welfare protections and used his presidential veto to block many of Tusk’s free market reforms.

Now Tusk is free to push ahead with plans to modernize the economy and revamp Poland’s welfare system, which includes tackling thorny issues such as farm subsidies, the retirement age, pension pay, dilapidated infrastructure and trimming the national debt. Yet Tusk’s agenda is far from assured — if Civic Platform goes too far with its reforms, the party could scare off voters ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections.

That’s because many segments of the population remain conflicted over Poland’s communist past and capitalist present. Indeed, Kaczynski, a euro-skeptic, has positioned himself as a voice for those who feel cheated by capitalism, attracting many older, rural supporters who’ve responded to his conservative Catholic values and fervent rhetoric against Russia and Germany.

On the other hand, both Komorowski and Tusk support strong ties with Russia and the European Union and say that Poland’s future prosperity lies in dismantling antiquated relics of the communist system.

The man largely credited with first dismantling that system concedes that Poland remains deeply polarized, although he says today’s political divisions are the natural outgrowth of a functioning democracy. Lech Walesa, the iconic Solidarity co-founder whose trade union protests struck a fatal blow to communism in the Soviet bloc, also admits that capitalism inherently leaves some people behind.

“In spite of everything, communism was an organized system in a way that capitalism simply is not,” said Walesa, a former electrician who served as Poland’s president from 1990 to 1995. But at the end of day, he says, there is “simply no other way” to ensure lasting social prosperity than a liberal democracy and market economy.

Walesa spoke to The Washington Diplomat and more than a dozen other journalists invited on a press trip to Poland as part of a high-level summit in Krakow to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Community of Democracies, a joint initiative of former Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek and former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

In addition to Walesa, other leaders who participated in the democracy powwow included current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and hundreds of human rights activists, nongovernmental organizations and government leaders from around the world (also see sidebar).

The event was touted as proof that democracy promotion is alive and well — even though President Obama has downgraded the emphasis of his predecessor’s so-called “freedom agenda.” Advancing democracy is in fact more needed than ever “at a time when democracy finds itself under pressure and suffering a crisis of confidence,” according to Foreign Minister Sikorski, who spoke at the summit.

“After a year of popular protests in Iran, the Green movement has been crudely and brutally put down. Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest in Burma,” Sikorski pointed out. “Even the most long-established democracies are facing serious challenges, from popular disenchantment in the political process to the fraying social contracts between citizens and governments in the wake of the global economic crisis.”

Sikorski also noted that the location of the meeting “could hardly be more appropriate,” as Poland looks to “share its experiences and help other countries in implementing democratic reforms.”

And today, that means bolstering traditional democracy promotion programs while harnessing new tools and technologies, such as Facebook, Twitter and other social networking media. These technologies were the focus of one summit workshop, in which bloggers and activists from Egypt, Yemen and the United States talked about how cell phone texts and iPhone applications can empower opposition groups, document government abuse, and even thwart Internet censors.

As far removed as iPhones and Blackberries may seem from the shipyard strikes that defined Poland’s democracy revolution, Walesa said the protest movement he spearheaded 30 years ago relied on the same premise: bringing people together to raise awareness.

“Solidarnosc is when you have to carry something heavy, and you need help carrying the burden,” he told The Diplomat, adding that today the world faces a whole new set of burdens that require 21st-century solidarity.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner credits the Solidarity’s movement’s “ability to organize the masses” for breaking the Soviet chokehold that had strangled Poland since the end of World War II.

“Once we saw our strength in numbers, we started to really come together,” he recalled, explaining that the Gdansk shipyard protests exposed the fundamental weakness of the communist system, which is when “we really kicked them in the shins.”

Boguslaw Sonik, another key figure in the Solidarity movement who also spoke to reporters during the July press trip, agreed that communism relied on a strategy of intimidation and division. “We realized that the only way to topple communism was to join forces and stay united,” he said, warning that today Russia often pursues a similar tactic of dividing European nations against one another.

Sonik — who currently serves as a member of the European Parliament — also stressed that Solidarity was a nonviolent movement that avoided “any kind of protest that could have provoked the authorities to use their power against the people.”

Nevertheless, threatened by the increasingly large and coordinated protests (by 1981, Solidarity had more than 10 million members, nearly every worker in Poland), authorities did clamp down on the popular movement, imposing martial law in December 1981 and dissolving the Solidarity trade union less than a year later.

So the movement went underground and pressed on until the beleaguered puppet government finally entered into talks with Walesa and other opposition leaders in 1989, leading to parliamentary elections in which Solidarity trounced almost every single communist candidate and was able to form a coalition government in August 1989.

It was a stunning victory that not only had a domino effect throughout Europe (the Berlin Wall fell six months later), but demonstrated the resolve of Poland’s workers, who began uprising in the late 1970s and endured more than a decade of Soviet repression. “In the end though, the communists realized they were bankrupt and could no longer rule the country,” Sonik said.

Walesa echoed that sentiment. “Communism collapsed simply because it was a bad system. But the collapse of an idea is one thing. The building of something entirely new is completely different.”

He admitted that the workers who’d fought for Poland’s freedom paid a high price after communism’s demise. “We lost 80 percent of our market initially because it was linked to communism,” he pointed out.

In fact, as soon as the Iron Curtain fell, another reality came crashing down as the country had to rebuild its shattered economy from scratch. In 1989, the average monthly salary was $20, according to Pawel Wojciechowski, undersecretary of state at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. By 1990, the monthly salary was $100, and by 2009 it was $1,000.

After an ambitious, sometimes painful privatization campaign, the government was able to increase gross domestic product eightfold from 1989 to 2008, Wojciechowski told reporters, including a 1.8 percent jump in GDP last year — the only increase in the EU.

The country is also on track for 3.5 percent growth this year, although major economic issues — such as reforming the pension system and curbing the deficit — still need to be addressed. Nevertheless, Poland remains in far better shape than most of its neighbors thanks to sound banking policies and strong domestic demand.

But Polish officials caution that their country’s long, arduous path to success can’t easily be replicated in other nations today.

“I need to stress that Poland’s situation was very specific because after [World War II], the regime did not manage to suppress and break the church,” Sonik said, calling the Catholic Church “an enclave of freedom and survival for Polish citizens” that formed one of two pillars of Poland’s struggle for democracy, the other being the country’s workers.

A former journalist who organized press coverage of Pope John Paul II’s historic visit to Poland in 1979, Sonik said the appointment of a Polish man to serve as pope “gave everyone strength and showed us what was possible.”

Indeed, the church served as a galvanizing force for Walesa, a devout Catholic who calls Pope John Paul II the spiritual inspiration behind Solidarity, saying he taught us “not to be afraid.”

Although Poland’s unique circumstances can’t necessarily be duplicated, many officials admit that — 30 years after they became a beacon of hope in the Cold War — Poles could be doing a better job inspiring other emerging democracies today.

“This is the greatest failure of Poland, translating the Polish experience into a universal message,” said Janusz Reiter, Poland’s former ambassador in Washington who now heads up the Center for International Relations in Warsaw. “The 1980s were a sort of Polish decade in Europe. Poland was writing a blueprint for the European revolution, but then suddenly, in 1989 to ’90, Poland lost its sense of ownership. Poland did a good job but lost its sense of mission. Today, there is bitterness that the country’s contribution is underestimated,” he added, lamenting the fact that the collapse of communism today evokes dramatic images of the Berlin Wall being toppled rather than Solidarity’s shipyard strikes in Gdansk.

The hero of those strikes agreed that for years afterward, Poland turned inward, in part out of sheer necessity. “We set the example but then we had to focus on ourselves [and build our economy] so we left it to others to follow our example,” Walesa said.

Sonik believes it’s time to re-establish that example. “On the 30th anniversary of Solidarity, we would like to repay the world and help other parts of the world that have no freedoms, to show them that compromise and not necessarily a bloody confrontation is possible to change things.”

Indeed, after speaking with more than a dozen Polish officials about what lessons can be extracted for today’s democracy promotion efforts, a consistent theme emerged: the usefulness of dialogue, peaceful internal resistance and outside pressure to gradually erode an authoritarian regime’s grip on society.

“There is no blueprint for Polish democracy but I believe this example can be exploited as a source of inspiration,” said Reiter, adding that “the legacy of the Polish revolution is not a legacy of romanticism that prevailed against realpolitik. It is a legacy of realpolitik serving a romantic vision.”

To that end, he cited the opposition’s willingness to talk to those in power, as well as outside assistance to engage both the opposition and ruling party.

“The Polish success story would not have been possible without the support of the Western world, especially the U.S. policy of outreach,” he said, noting that exchange programs were also extended to members of the regime as a “tactical concession” in the larger battle. “Outreach is the best thing you can do if you want to make change happen in a closed society.”

Yet all the outreach in the world won’t make a difference unless the people on the ground want change, according to Sonik of the European Parliament. “There are of course no simple recipes. But without the will and sacrifice and self-mobilization of the people, it’s not possible to change or fight a dictatorship,” he said. “You really can’t overthrow regimes by force. But the most important thing is that those people fighting for their freedoms never feel they are alone…. So what we can do is support them as we were helped.”

To that end, Sonik said it is still vital for institutions such as the European Parliament to “name and shame” dictatorships, praising upcoming resolutions that denounce Venezuela and Zimbabwe. He also cited the importance of providing financial assistance to NGOs and grassroots activists.

Bogdan Borusewicz, president of the Polish Senate, told The Diplomat that outside support was instrumental during Solidarity’s protracted standoff with the government in the 1980s, noting that groups such as the AFL-CIO provided critical funding during the movement’s underground years.

Borusewicz, a leader in the 1980 Gdansk strikes, spent four years in hiding while Solidarity was outlawed and was later imprisoned by the communists for two years. Interestingly, he said that economic sanctions imposed by the Reagan administration on Poland served a valuable purpose by squeezing the ruling regime, even though they also punished average citizens. (The United States, Britain and international agencies refused to grant debt-ridden Poland economic aid until it legalized Solidarity.)

He admits that the question of sanctions poses the same dilemma today, whether it has to do with Iran, North Korea or Cuba. “We debated them too at the time because they affect everyone,” he said, “but I am still for it.”

Borusewicz cautioned that the outside players must strike a delicate balance when confronting authoritarian regimes, not shying away from harsh measures like sanctions but in most cases stopping short of military intervention. He pointed out that while the United States and Russia spent hundreds of millions of dollars during the Cold War arms buildup, Poland ushered in democracy “without a single rocket.”

Likewise, Walesa — who patiently negotiated for years with the communists — touted the power of engagement over military might. He says that while economic isolation can be useful, it also has its limits, citing the U.S. embargo on Cuba as a clear example of when sanctions lose their effectiveness.

Calling the communist island “a mosquito on America’s nose,” Walesa said “we should learn to fight not by confrontation but by opening Cuba up,” arguing that an influx of American tourists would likely have more of an impact on Cuba than the failed five-decade-long embargo.

In fact, he says that although capitalism came as a shock for Poland in the 1990s, today it has created a culture that — for better or worse — has forever changed the dynamics of democracy promotion.

“The 21st century has transported us to a new world of communication and globalization. Now we can buy anything we want. We are a society of buyers,” said Walesa. “Previously you could just liquidate entire nations, but now we are nations of buyers…. All of that started with the collapse of communism.”

Asked if 30 years ago he could have envisioned setting into motion a chain of events that would destroy communism in Eastern Europe. Walesa chuckled. “If someone had told me that we’d be having this global conference of democracies, I wouldn’t have believed them — at least not without physical pressure. I am the happiest man in the world that I lived long enough to see a normal, peaceful life with freedom and no communism. You should even consider me the happiest man in the universe.”

About the Author

Anna Gawel is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat and news columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.