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Poland: Anti-Communist Movement Showed The Way

By Jefim Fistein

In another in a series of interviews with leading figures in the revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe ten years ago, RFE/RL's Jefim Fistein talks with former Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki -- Poland's first post-communist head of government. Mazowiecki reflects on the events in Poland and Central Europe in 1989, on the lessons of the years since, and on the region's future.

Warsaw, 3 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Mazowiecki was asked about the role of the anti-communist movement in Poland in bringing about the fall of communism in the region as a whole. He says Poland is the country that showed the way.

"We insist on the fact that we were the first, because the world remembers the fall of the wall and does not remember the beginning of these changes, that they happened before, in our country. It is not understood well enough that if these changes had failed in our country, if we had not been able to conduct them as we did, in a peaceful way, avoiding all very dangerous provocations from the other side, the provocations from the communists were very dangerous. So if we had not succeeded to conduct the changes in a peaceful way, I think it would have made things difficult for you and for the other countries. That's why I think Poland played the role of the one that showed the way. It was very important that everything happened the way it did. And then for us it was important that we were not alone any longer when the changes expended through all of central Europe, and could develop further."

Asked what he dislikes in the current political scene in Poland, the former prime minister says he feels that people are too apt to focus on the negative, now that they have the freedom to criticize.

"I don't like when people do not prize what happened, the changes. When they forget what happened. When they forget that the stores were empty, that people would go shopping and there was nothing. When they say, because that's the impression they have, is that everything that we did was so easy, and we got everything on the spot. They don't understand that we succeeded because we carefully planned our actions, and that's why we succeeded. I don't like that. But of course, if there are some questions that bother me, I think that the general result is positive. We changed the political system, we changed the economic system, radically. Poland occupies a better place on the international scene. All these are basic things that make Poland a different country than what it was ten years ago."

Mazowiecki adds that there are legitimate criticisms to be made.

"Which does not mean that I close my eyes to the fact that there are difficult and bad things going on for the country. Part of the population have not found themselves, in this process of transformation. It's difficult for these people to find their place. We cannot just say that we do not care about these people. So I think the developments should be more balanced, to include these people. I do not think that we can just cross out these lives. Among things that I do not like are some primitive discussions among politicians, just when we have very important things to do to improve everything in this country."

Mazowiecki's government instituted harsh economic reforms that initially rocked Poland's economy. Mazowiecki says implementing those reforms was difficult.

"The Polish economy went through shock therapy. The decisions that were taken were difficult for me, because I knew that they would hit big companies which were the stronghold of the Solidarity movement. At the same time, I knew that there was no other way, and that we had to conduct decisive actions. I hoped then that we could relatively quickly introduce some elements to balance the process. In this sense I am still asking myself the question, could I have done more in this short frame of time, of sixteen months?"

Asked about the change of attitudes that capitalism and democracy have brought to Poland, Mazowiecki has this to say:

"This change has certainly occurred in the younger generation. They don't remember those times. They have a different way of thinking, and sometimes in a way that I find questionable. It is a generation that prizes personal success, and not some values that would aim to serve the society and the country. So this also creates problems. The change of mentality was to be done in the sense that people were expected to understand that the state would not take care of everything for them. Everybody should forge his own destiny."

Already a member of NATO, Poland is in the first tier of applicants expected to be allowed into the European Union. Mazowiecki:

"The accession of Poland to the European Union, just like for the Czech Republic, Hungary, and in the future for Slovakia, is not only in our interests, if we think in political categories, it is in the interests of all of Europe, in the interests of western European countries. Because in the new world order, Europe has to answer one question: is it going to become a big Europe, or is it going to stay Western Europe, and we will have something different here?"

Mazowiecki concludes with some thoughts on Russia.

"Developments in Russia are important for Poland, for Europe, and of course bad developments in Russia create dangerous situations. On the other side, the question is, are these dangerous situations able to harm other countries? I don't think so. But it is in our interest that things will develop well for Russia, and I'm watching very closely what happens in Russia."