Accessibility links

Lech Walesa on the Challenge of Poland's Transformation

Prague, August 2 -- The following is the address delivered today at RFE/RL in Prague by former Polish President Lech Walesa. He was addressing students from Central Europe and the U.S. taking part in the 1996 Institute on Political and Economic Systems, sponsored by the Washington-based Fund for American Studies. The translation from Polish was provided by Walesa's staff.

In order to be able to tell you about the Polish transformation, I must start with a description of what we started the process with. Transformation means transition from one state to another. In our case, the first state is over, the second has not yet been accomplished. When describing the first one I would touch the qualifications of historians, when attempting to describe the latter, I would touch the qualifications of a fortune teller. I feel uneasy in both those roles. I am an electrician by trade, whereas my destiny wanted me to become a politician trained by practice. A politician, though, must occasionally put himself in somebody else's shoes.

I am now addressing myself to our brothers from Central and Eastern Europe. In our case brotherhood means the same origin and geneology and also community of experience. I needn't explain to you Czechs, especially the older ones, what censorship means, what the power of party nomenclature means, why people shiver at the mention of security services, what the consequences are of the only one just ideology. You young people are lucky that all these need to be explained to you, that you have not experienced those phenomena and that is what you should be grateful for."

Communism, socialism, was a political system the least favorable to people. Among other things, it distorted the language by depriving it of its meanings. It called itself people's democracy, which was neither people's nor was it democracy. So-called socialist justice was synonomous with lawlessness. It was the system of ruthless subjugation of man to a totalitarian machinery. And we mean subjugation in all spheres of life. It was subjugation of human conscience to one and only one Marxist ideology. And subjugation of economy to one and only one state power. Subjugation of society and state to one and only one party. Subjugation of people's speech and interpersonal communication to censorship. Subjugation of all the authorities to political police. According to this conception, a citizen could not say, do, think, or possess anything other than what was in accordance with the party leadership.

In order to achieve this the authorities tried to atomize society, to decompose all its structures, since all those structures, from family, through churches, and social organizations, to political parties imposed their own models. Therefore they were rival and thus hostile bodies which had to be destroyed. The communist nomenclature had this vision of a lonely and addle-brained man against the omnipotent mechanism of power. We could see what this resulted in Pol Pot's Cambodia, and this can still be seen in the North Korean Skansen museum.

Therefore the movement that my fate gave me the honor and privilege to lead acquired the name solidarity. This inter-human solidarity meant that people felt less lonely, that they felt the power that resulted from community, the power that helped them win. The regime that controlled everything and seemed omnipotent proved to be weak. The minute one element was out of control, the whole system shook. And we won.

We won knowing that we were struggling not only for our own sake but also for the sake of our brothers in Prague, Berlin, Tirana, Vilnius, Budapest, and Moscow. And also, which is often underestimated, for the sake of our brothers in Hamburg, Paris, London, or New York. Let us recall here that there had been dozens, even hundreds of divisions on both sides of the Elbe Line.

The zone thousands kilometers eastward and westward was filled with the supplies for the army, command headquarters, hundreds of thousands of tanks and armored vehicles. Incessantly, for half a century, preparations for the greatest battle ever were carried out. Millions of people would have lost their lives in it, millions would have suffered injuries, many towns would have ceased to exist. It would have been an unimagineable tragedy.

This battle and this war are won. They were won by the Gdansk strikes and Warsaw negotiations. They were also won in Prague, Bucharest, and Vilnius. They were won by the "Velvet Revolution" of the Fall of Nations. They were won by political means and peaceful methods. They were won bloodlessly, without shots, without the dead. And if there were any tears, they were tears of happiness. Our revolution shot champagne corks.

We must, however, realize that we live on the massive battlefield of this great unwaged war. But we also live on the battlefield of the war that communism waged for fifty years against society. For fifty years in the ex-communist block, but even for longer in the countries of the ex-Soviet Union. Communism left the country devastated economically and ecologically. However, the greatest damage was done in people's consciousness. That damage is all the more severe, since it can hardly be made up for. You may rebuild a house in a year, you need a decade to reconstruct industry, but to change social consciousness you need a number of generations. I often give here the example of Moses who, having led the Chosen People out of Egypt, kept his people in the wilderness for forty years. He wanted the generation which bore the stigma of imprisonment to die away. We, however, have no such wilderness.

Our transformation is carried out on several levels. And the transformation of consciousness, which is the most difficult one for the reasons presented above, requires time and patience. It will surely become a fascinating subject of doctoral dissertations of historians and social psychologists. However, three more dimensions remain: that of economy, that of foreign policy, and that of internal policy. All those three levels complement each other and condition each other. I will discuss each of them separately, not because they are easily separated, but for the sake of an orderly presentation.

When it comes to economy, I would like to point to two facts. Firstly, to what has already been said, that is, to the fact that we live on the ruins of a system, the term "ruins" also applying to economy. The Soviet Union has collapsed, and so have the Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Aid, and thanks be to the Lord for this; yet, together with the collapse of the Soviet Union, three-quarters of the Polish turnover ceased to exist. What does this mean? This is as if suddenly three-quarters of one's monthly pay were deducted. Do you think that such a person is able to feed his family and provide for their living until next payday? I doubt it. However, we managed to do so. We are already looking for new contacts, we are already signing new deals. Yet the price of the reform was enormous, and equally massive was social disenchantment. This is one of the reasons why I am here with you and not sitting at the presidential desk.

Secondly, we are pioneers. We are venturing along the tracks that nobody else before us followed. The transition from capitalism to communism is easy, one decree on nationalization solves the problem. However, the transition from communism to capitalism is a totally different matter. It is easy to make fish soup from the aquarium with living gold-fish, but just imagine what challenge it is to try to make the aquarium with living goldfish out of the fish-soup. And this is precisely what we are trying to do.

This process is time- and pain-staking. Each of the three tasks that we are facing, namely privatization, re-privatization, and enfranchisement, may be a separate subject of not only one, but a series of lectures. However, I would like to draw your attention to two aspects of the problem. Firstly, that the process causes deep social inequalities, with some becoming rich very quickly, and the others impoverishing equally fast. This fact is badly acceptable by Polish society brought up with egalitarian attitudes. Secondly, that process is deeply crime-prone and creates a favorable atmosphere for corruption. Neither of the two factors is approved of by the Poles. What I have just said only illustrates how difficulties in one sphere are projected into the other one, in this case economic difficulties cause social disenchantment.

It seems that the situation is relatively simple when it comes to foreign policy. Poland wants to join NATO and European structures. However, decisions concerning this move are not to be made in Warsaw, but in Washington and Brussels where nobody really rushes to make them. We find it most difficult to explain to people that NATO expansion is not aimed against anybody. It merely means the expansion of the security zone. We want Poland to be the base for American generals, such as General Motors or General Electric. However, those generals are reluctant to enter Poland until Poland is a safe country. Western politicians think along old confrontational lines. They have not noticed the political changes of the last decade. They keep counting the tanks as if the cold war had never ended. The situation is similar, though slightly different, with the European Union.

The Union politicians think mainly in the terms of their re-election and pay attention only to the narrowly conceived interests of their electorate and push forward merely their particular interests. They hardly think in the terms of a country, not to mention in the terms of a continent or globally. However, the 21st century will demand from us a global approach. Economy, ecology or information have long surpassed national or even continental borders. Only the politicians have remained enclosed within the limited borders of a country or of a political party. What we lack today are politicians of a vision, since we have merely politicians of television.

The battlefield that I am talking about also refers to our home policy, which means that our political and social life have become a shambles. We are paying for the political and social life having been ruined by the dictatorship of the monoparty system. Our revolution, that is the revolution of Solidarity, has won a double victory. The first one since it gained power, the second one since it gave power back to democracy. All the revolutions gain power but afterwards never want to share it. Such was the case of the French Revolution which finally ended up in terror and guillotines. Such was the case of the Soviet revolution which ended up in the atrocities of the Gulag. Such was the history of the Castro revolution, the results of which can still be seen in Cuba.

The Poles have stood up to the test of democracy. They lost power, but why was that? Simply because our opponents were much better prepared. Politics in a democratic country is a team game. It is the rivalry of political parties. The communists dissolved their party. However taking advantage of some of it and its bases, having changed their logos and repainted their banners, they have established a post-communist party. At the starting point it had 400,000 members (from the 3 million in the old communist party), whereas all the post-Solidarity parties, the total number of which amounts to 250, had 100,000 members all together. The proportion is four to one. We were thus bound to lose.

However, it is better to lose according to the principles, rather than to win breaking the rules. We could have retained power by military force or issuing decrees. But that would have been our real defeat. The world is too small for one Kim Il Sung. I did not really want to become another one.

The question arises whether the return of the repainted communists is dangerous to the democratization processes. The answer is: no. Communism had two dimensions; in economy it propagated a certain kind of ownership, in politics it meant a certain form of exercising power. When talking about ownership we can say that the communists have gathered so much capital that they are now going to defend it as if it were national independence. They are not going to share it with another Lenin. When it comes to running the country, they only have the social mandate for ruling within the framework of democracy. Any attempt on their part at returning to the old forms would cause a social explosion which would erase them from the Polish political scene. And they are fully aware of this. Therefore, we can peacefully concentrate on establishing strong political parties. I am confident that having lost the battle we will win the war. And it will be our victory. An animal trainer when he wants to check the results of his efforts, presents the animal with some temptations.

And the return of communists to power is precisely such a temptation and a test to them. They will either pass the test, or will cease to exist. For in order to have normality in Poland, we need civilized communists. Communism is not the ideology that I follow, yet I will struggle for its political representation. For the sake of democracy.

And at this point we are reaching the issue of the purpose of our transformations, that is normality. You may find it strange that people envied you so much for the normality you grew up in and which you consider so natural you just take it for granted. We are all healthy, but the healthy do not realize how much effort a sick person needs to regain health. We are all normal, but it is hard to realize how much effort is needed for a distorted mind to regain healthy normality. Our return to normality, that is our transformation, will require much effort. But what do we mean by normality? We mean complying with the few simple rules, that is representative democracy, self-governing, separation of politics from state administration, freedom of speech and free flow of information, human rights, private ownership, and market economy. Such are the dimensions that each country on our world map should represent. Just like Lego blocks: they all have standardized dimensions but can be used for different constructions. Have you ever, ladies and gentlemen, watched children playing with such blocks? I have, for, as you may know, I have eight children. If one of their blocks does not fit well with the others, they just throw it away, and the same can apply to countries, if they don't standardize, they will be just left aside.