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Poland Celebrates 30 Years Of Solidarity, Gdansk Accords

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Former Polish President Lech Walesa (right) and Prime Minister Donald Tusk lay a wreath in Gdansk to mark the 30th anniversary of Solidarity on August 29.

Former Polish President Lech Walesa (right) and Prime Minister Donald Tusk lay a wreath in Gdansk to mark the 30th anniversary of Solidarity on August 29.

Poland is marking the 30th anniversary of the Gdansk accords, which gave rise to the Solidarity trade union -- the first independent trade union in the Soviet bloc.

Various events marking the historic occasion are being held around Poland, centered on the Baltic coast towns where Solidarity had its birth.

Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski set the tone for the celebrations in a speech he gave on August 29 in the port of Szczecin.

"On this special day, we can face all these people with pride and satisfaction and pay a tribute to their heroic fight for the abolition of the system and commemorate with pride that the fight was not only successful in knocking down communism, but it also established the base for an effective and wise reform," he said.

The Gdansk accords were signed on August 31, 1980, between the communist government and striking workers along the Baltic coast. The accords allowed a free trade union, the right to strike, and pay rises. They also limited censorship, freed political prisoners, and permitted the weekly broadcast of Catholic Mass on state-controlled radio and television.

Walesa (left) speaks to workers during a strike at the Gdansk shipyard on August 8, 1980.
Based on these accords, the Solidarity trade union was formally recognized on October 24 and eventually grew to a membership of 10 million Poles -- more than one-quarter of the country's population.

Days Of High Tension

Behind the government's astonishing list of concessions lay the strong personality of Lech Walesa, a dockyard electrician who had become the head of the strike committee two weeks before the accords were signed.

They were days of high tension, with no one sure whether the Polish government would decide to crush the strikers by force or whether Moscow would lose patience and send troops into Poland. To this day, Walesa says he can hardly believe what was begun at the time -- and ultimately achieved a decade later.

"If anyone had told me then that I would live to see the time when there would be no communism and no Soviets in Poland, that Poland would be sovereign and independent, I would not have believed that we could achieve that," Walesa said.

Speaking at a commemorative concert in Gdansk on August 29, Walesa emphasized Solidarity's seminal role in the subsequent collapse of communism throughout Eastern Europe and the region's incorporation into the European Union.

"If I could bring my father back to life for a moment and tell him there are no Soviets in Poland, no soldiers stationed at the Polish-German border, there are no borders and in general almost no borders exist in Europe, he would die of a heart attack for the second time," Walesa said.

'Terribly Tired'

But Walesa and Solidarity have long since drifted apart. Once Solidarity had taken a leading role in the replacement of the communist government in 1989, Walesa went on in 1990 to be Polish president.

The latest rift between them came when he was displeased that the union lent its backing to the unsuccessful conservative candidate Jaroslaw Kaczynski in the presidential election earlier this year.

Walesa declined to attend the August 29 celebration in Szczecin, writing on his blog that he was "terribly tired" and just wanted to be left to rest in "peace and quiet."

At a separate memorial ceremony in Gdansk today -- which was attended by Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Law and Justice Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, but not Walesa -- U.S. President Barack Obama paid tribute to the Solidarity movement, saying it continued to inspire all who seek freedom around the world.

In a message read out by the U.S. ambassador to Poland, Lee Feinstein, Obama said, "Today, there are those who live under tyranny and are denied human rights. The Solidarity movement is a source of inspiration in the fight for liberty for all the world's citizens.”

He added, "Through the Solidarity movement, the people of Poland reminded us of the power each of us has to write our own destiny. In the face of tyranny and oppression, they chose freedom and democracy and, in doing so, changed their country and the course of history.”

with agency reports

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