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Poland Marks 20th Anniversary Of First Postcommunist Government

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Tadeusz Mazowiecki makes his first speech as prime minister in parliament in Warsaw on August 24, 1989.

Tadeusz Mazowiecki makes his first speech as prime minister in parliament in Warsaw on August 24, 1989.

The momentous summer of 1989 was a time of disintegration and rebirth for Central and Eastern Europe. The once-impregnable Iron Curtain was cracking, and the edifice of communism was tottering.

The month of August saw a human chain stretching across the three Baltic states, as 2 million people joined hands to protest the Moscow-Berlin pact that had placed them inside the Soviet sphere of influence.

The same month, Hungary's opposition staged its "Pan-European Picnic," an event which led to a mass breaching of the Iron Curtain by hundreds of East Germans, who were allowed to cross into the West without hindrance.

And in Warsaw, a member of Poland's independent Solidarity labor movement became the first noncommunist leader of a Central or Eastern European country since World War II. The new prime minister was Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a dissident journalist who had edited Solidarity's journal.

Mazowiecki gestures triumphantly after the election of his cabinet on September 12, 1989. His government would introduce radical economic and political reforms.
August 24 marks the 20th anniversary of that first postcommunist government.

"I want to form a government that is able to help society, the nation, and the country. I want to be a prime minister for all the Polish people," Mazowiecki said in 1989, expressing hope to parliament that he could end the divisions in Polish society.

In long negotiations with the government, the union had earlier gained agreement that a full one-third of the seats in the Sejm would be freely contested in the June 4 national elections that year.

Non-Communists took all but one of those seats, and by September, Mazowiecki won a vote of confidence in parliament by a sweeping 402 votes to nil, with 13 abstentions. Solidarity had beaten the Communists, who saw no alternative to Mazowiecki.

By November, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the division of Europe was over. In December 1990, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa became Poland's president.

Poles are sensitive to the fact that the fall of the Berlin Wall has captured the world's imagination as the moment when communism finally collapsed. But they say the appointment of Mazowiecki was, in reality, the moment when communism in Europe was vanquished and democracy restored.

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