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Poland: On 25th Anniversary, Walesa Says Solidarity 'Broke Bear's Teeth'

Lech Walesa being carried by supporters through the streets of Kracow, 18 October 1980 World dignitaries and communist-era dissidents gathered in Poland's Baltic Sea port city of Gdansk today to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Solidarity trade union. The movement is credited as the driving force behind the nonviolent revolt in the 1980s that led to the collapse of communism. As RFE/RL reports, many of those gathered in Gdansk have been praising Solidarity as an inspiration to pro-democracy movements around the world.

Prague, 31 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Polish city of Gdansk is marking the 25th anniversary of the day when a strike at the sprawling Lenin shipyard on the Baltic Sea ended and Solidarity -- the first free trade union in the communist bloc -- was born.

The main streets of Gdansk are draped in the red and white of Poland's flag, as well as with Solidarity logos and huge posters recalling the wave of strikes across the country in August 1980.

Graffiti commissioned by city authorities at one entrance to the port reminds visitors and residents of the Gdansk shipyard strike -- calling it a brave first step toward ending communism in Europe.

The festivities in Gdansk have included a Roman Catholic Mass honoring the late Polish-born Pope John Paul, as well as a speech by Lech Walesa -- the electrician who led the historic strikes and, in 1990, became Poland's first elected president in the postcommunist era.

Walesa told those gathered today that the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe is the legacy of Solidarity. He described the trade union movement as a force that "broke the teeth" of the Soviet "bear."

"My generation, actually without any gunshots or blood, changed the system -- the entire epoch. Speaking simply, we broke the bear's teeth here in Gdansk, so the bear could not bite others who tried to break free," Walesa said.

Among the current political leaders at the ceremonies were Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Both came to power as a result of massive nonviolent street protests in their countries during the past two years.

Tourists still visit Gdansk to see the symbols of the Solidarity struggle. Austrian visitor Margareth de Burkle echoed the views of many when she said she sees Solidarity as an inspiration for nonviolent political protests around the world.

"It changed all mankind, indeed. Because here, people were Christians, so they knew inside what it means to be peaceful -- not to fight with weapons but with the heart and with love," de Burkle said.

Polish anticommunist dissident Henryk Nowakowski traveled to Gdansk from the Polish town of Plock -- about 100 kilometers north of Warsaw -- to join the protests 25 years ago. Standing with other former dissidents from across Poland today, he recalled the time when he was detained and jailed for producing unauthorized political pamphlets.

"It was worth it, really worth it. I didn't even know before that time how people lived in jails. I'm older now, but it was worth sitting in jail for the freedom that we have now," Nowakowski said.

But Gdansk shipyard worker Jerzy Czarniecki says he thinks the original Solidarity protesters in Poland have not received their proper reward for their role in history. Czarniecki notes that the shipyard has deteriorated since the collapse of communism, with little support from successive Polish governments. When the shipyard faced serious financial problems, it was eventually taken over by a nearby shipyard.

"We didn't think at that time that this [revolution] would spill out into all of Europe. Because you have to admit that all changes -- democracy in Eastern Europe -- started here in our backyard. At the second gate of the shipyard near the administration building. This is where it all started," Czarniecki said.

Other former dissidents say it is ironic that Solidarity was a victim of its own success -- becoming weakened and marginalized as a trade union as market reforms in Poland progressed during the 1990s. That's because the economic reforms brought in after communism had a strong impact on the traditional strongholds of union power in heavy industries.

(RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Alex Dzikavicki contributed to this report from Warsaw.)

See also:

"Solidarity -- The Trade Union That Changed The World"

"Interview With Solidarity Ideologue Bronislaw Geremek"