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Poland: We Won the War But Not The Peace, Says Walesa

  • Kitty McKinsey

Lech Walesa, who led Poland's Solidarity movement, the first independent trade union in the Soviet Bloc, played a prominent role in the downfall of communism across Eastern Europe in 1989. A former president and a likely candidate in presidential elections next year, Walesa recently made a speaking tour of the Americas. During the trip he spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Kitty McKinsey in Honolulu, Hawaii, and reflected on the events of 10 years ago.

Honolulu, Hawaii; 22 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Walesa was asked how he assesses the many changes that have taken place in Poland and Eastern Europe since the downfall of Communism in 1989.

"If somebody had told me 30 years ago, or even 20 years ago, that I was going to live to see such great changes in Poland and in Europe, I would have considered myself the happiest man on earth. However, now when I am witnessing all the changes, and having witnessed them in the course of 10 years, my observation is that we actually had won the war but we have not won the peace. Because it is not enough to win the war, what comes after is winning the peace."

Walesa contrasts the period after the end of the Cold War to that after World War II. He says that in the earlier period, there were Western statesmen who helped rebuild at least Western Europe under the Marshall Plan. He says the same did not happen in Central and Eastern Europe after the Cold War.

"After the Cold War, when the need was even greater, we lacked people and ideas of that quality. Of course, things can still be done, but we are already well delayed on this track. Everybody imagined that economists would solve the problem. But business people are not philanthropists, they choose and pick the most attractive fragments from the old Communist economies. Whereas the new generation Marshall Plan would and should refer to those least attractive fragments of Communist economies. However, we could not influence this in any way. This proposal should have come from Western powers. We did all we could, almost everything we could on our part."

Walesa was asked whether he thinks the workers that he represented in Solidarity are better off or worse off now than they were before 1989.

"If we are to judge on the average results, almost in every aspect, the average figures are much higher than they were before. This is unquestionable. However, it's always like this with the average figures -- a group is much better off and the remaining group is worse off. And I think we have produced too quickly too great a gap in our society. And they really make workers resent the changes very much."

Walesa was asked whether he thinks the current government in Poland is helping to improve the situation for these workers.

"It is obvious that it is certainly trying to do something. However, it just happened that the government has imposed too much of a burden, too many difficulties at the same time on the shoulders of society. I would metaphorically say that they pulled all the people in the deep end of the swimming pool and they will see who is going to survive and let the others drown. And I think they are not teaching us how to swim."

Walesa was asked for his reaction to the comment that the two people who were most responsible for the downfall of Communism were the Pope and Lech Walesa.

"I don't want to boast in any respect, and I can't even explain how it all happened, but it just happened like this. This was a gift of the Providence to me, and I took the maximum advantage of it. Among all those who were in opposition, I have been the most experienced. Because in 1970 I had led the strike in the same shipyard. It was a strike that I lost, but over 10 years, I did a lot of thinking about it. And when the situation kind of repeated itself, I knew what to do. Of course, then afterwards came [Mikhail] Gorbachev and his perestroika, but he wouldn't have come on stage without us. Then came the Berlin Wall, and without us, it couldn't have fallen down as well. And although some people perhaps put more emphasis on the two latter things, this can be understood. We were a very dangerous fire that was spread all over and then concentrated, came together. And on this fire, the world cooked a fantastic dinner. And who cares how this dinner was cooked? Over which fire?"

Walesa was asked whether back in the 1980s he really expected to live to see the downfall of communism.

"I did not believe it at first. Then I just stopped thinking about it and devoted myself wholly to the cause. And then if you are in such a state, you do not really think that one may fail. Of course, I kept on calculating to avoid any bloodshed and how we should behave, but at such a stage one does not really give up, and the victory is as the goal. So, once we were allowed to establish free trade unions in 1980, I knew that communism was over."

Walesa was asked whether he was surprised by how rapidly communist regimes across Central and Eastern Europe were swept away by developments in 1989.

"I think the situation kind of fooled some activists. We are used to a gradual increase (change), not to a multiplication of the growth, whereas when it comes to revolution, you have to deal with a multiplication, and I think we just forgot about this factor, that a certain movement can create a real downfall. The very creation of an independent trade union within communism, provoked this multiplication, this fast increase, not a gradual increase. It was not adding one more element to communism. That is why many politicians miscalculated the situation. We tend to think in gradual terms, whereas it is not always the case. Many a time it is a multiplication."

Walesa was asked whether, for example, he would have expected the overthrow of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania.

"This is precisely what I referred to -- this multiplication of results. Had the process been started by the Soviet Union itself, it would have naturally been a kind of giving in to a particular country one by one. Whereas here, it was in protest against the Soviet Union. That is why it multiplied so fast."

Walesa was asked whether he is worried for Poland's future given the many troubles in neighboring Russia.

"It is a very serious question, and very vast. If we consider the situation from a logical point of view, there is no threat to Poland. Because how would it be profitable for Russia to take over Poland? It would not be any [profitable] business. A good business would be [for Russia] to dominate the United States. It would not be really any good business for Russia to take over Poland. And Poland is always a troublesome factor for whoever wants to dominate Poland. Had we not been within the influence of the Soviet Union, I suppose the Soviet Union could have continued to exist. So I imagine that Russia will avoid Poland for the time to come. At the same time, we must realize that what used to be profitable in the contests in the old era, is no longer profitable now. Therefore I do not foresee any planned wars. Because it is not profitable any more."