In one of a series of stories marking the 10th anniversary of the fall of communism in Europe, RFE/RL correspondent Jan de Weydenthal looks at the role of Poland as both a trailblazer for reforms and a testing ground for their effectiveness.
Prague, 13 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ten years ago yesterday, the Polish communists voluntarily stepped down from power, after losing the first partially free elections in a Soviet bloc country. The largest of the East European countries, Poland led the way in bringing about the demise of communism in the region. As Poland took step after step toward democracy without provoking a response from Moscow, other communist countries grew emboldened.
It was in Poland that the communists were first forced by popular protests to accept a major breach in their power. In September 1980, the labor union, Solidarity, was established as the first independent union in a communist country. Solidarity was suppressed by military force 16 months later, but public opposition to communist rule neither disappeared nor weakened. Solidarity rebounded at the end of the 1980s.
It was also in Poland that the communists were first forced by public pressure to accept free parliamentary elections. That happened 10 years ago, in June 1989. The communists lost.
And it was in Poland that the first democratic government in East Central Europe took office after decades of communist rule. In fact, the Polish communists themselves voted it into office ten years ago yesterday, on September 12, 1989.
In the process, Poland's communists, who had long claimed for themselves the right to set direction for all aspects of society's development, were gradually forced into obscurity. They dissolved their party in 1990 and became social democrats.
The communists' downfall in Poland was a long time coming. Years of divisiveness, managerial inefficiency and political corruption had weakened their control.
Already in the 1970s, the communists suffered severe political setbacks twice (in 1970 and 1976) when they were forced to change policies under pressure of workers' protests.
Their authority was further undermined when former Cracow cardinal Karol Wojtyla was elected in October 1978 as pope. Less than a year later, the pope, now known as John Paul II, paid a triumphal visit to his native country, igniting a massive outburst of national pride. In the eyes of most Poles, it was the pope and not any communist leader who had the right to guide the nation.
But ultimately, communism in Poland collapsed because its leaders failed to secure effective support from the Soviet Union. Moscow failed to intervene to put down Solidarity, instead pressing their Polish allies to do it on their own. The Soviet Union merely watched in early 1989 as the communists in Poland negotiated away political control. And Soviet leaders eagerly opened a dialogue with the first democratic, non-communist Polish government.
These developments were not lost on other countries in Central Europe. Dissidents of various countries had kept close contacts with their Polish colleagues. They all took note of Moscow's passive attitude toward Poland. And all were determined to put it to the test in their own countries.
Kestutis Girnius is the coordinator of RFE/RL's Baltic services and the author of a book on Lithuanian politics. He says that Soviet passivity toward Polish reform was encouraging to democrats in neighboring Lithuania.
"Similar processes were taking place in Lithuania, which began to become more free in 1989. And the fact that Moscow did not resort to violence to stop change in Poland and prevent Solidarity from coming to power encouraged Lithuania to believe that Moscow would eventually let them go."
Some analysts say Moscow's paralysis was the result of a conscious policy, guided by the widely proclaimed strategy of perestroika. Others say Moscow was unable to intervene, because its economy was in decline and its army was tied up in the Afghan war.
The legendary leader of Solidarity, Lech Walesa, said at the time that communism collapsed because it was simply outdated. In November 1989, he told a press conference in Washington that political changes in the region merely reflected the spirit of the times.
"The reforms in Eastern Europe are not happening because (Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev or Walesa or somebody else wants them. The irreversibility of reform is based on the fact that those reforms are part of the development of civilization. After satellites, computers and calculators, we are just following the steps of technology. So there is no question about reversibility or irreversibility of reforms. The question is not if, but how. The question is in what time span and what's the price going to be."
Pro-democracy activists in other communist countries supported those moves. Walesa told a joint session of the U. S. Congress in November 1989 that there simply was no other way.
"We are joined along this way (of reform), albeit to various extent, by others: Hungarians and Russians, Ukrainians and the people of the Baltic states, Armenians and Georgians, and, more recently, the East Germans. We wish them luck and rejoice at each success they achieve. We are certain that others will also take our road, since there is no other choice."
Within months of the emergence of a democratic government in Poland, a revolution swept the entire region. The system that dominated Central European politics, economics and societies for decades became history.