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Poland Remains Divided Over Legacy Of 1989 Solidarity Revolution

Solidarity was founded at the Gdansk shipyard
Solidarity was founded at the Gdansk shipyard
On June 4, 1989, Poles voted in semi-democratic parliamentary elections, handing a landslide victory to opposition candidates fielded by the Solidarity trade union.

The communists duly ceded defeat, paving the way for Solidarity to form a government.

That memorable ballot became a turning point not only for Poland, but for the entire communist bloc in Eastern Europe. Following Solidarity's advent to power in Poland, the other Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe liberated themselves from the Communist yoke before the end of 1989.

But 20 years later, both political elites and ordinary Poles remain bitterly divided in their assessment of what actually happened to Poland in 1989 and afterwards.

Solidarity Elections

Poland's 1989 elections resulted from a deal struck by the communists and Solidarity earlier that year, during the so-called Roundtable talks.

Plagued by economic problems, Solidarity-incited strikes, and deepening public dissatisfaction with their rule, the communists led by General Wojciech Jaruzelski decided to include some prominent Solidarity figures in the government without making any essential changes to the political system.

But Solidarity negotiators led by shipyard worker Lech Walesa achieved much more than that. The communists agreed not only to legalize Solidarity, which had been banned after the imposition of martial law in December 1981, but also to introduce a bicameral parliament and the post of president.

And, even more important, they allowed for unprecedented parliamentary polls, in which 35 percent of seats in the lower chamber (Sejm) and all seats in the upper chamber (Senat) were to be contested in a free vote.

The 1989 election results turned out to be a shock for the communists and Solidarity alike. Solidarity won 161 mandates in the 460-seat Sejm (the entire quota contested in free vote) and 99 mandates in the 100-seat Senat.
Former communists easily became capitalists, while many rank-and-file Solidarity members were plunged into poverty after the fall of communism

In theory, the Polish United Workers Party and its two satellite parties could have remained in power, as the Roundtable deal gave them a 65 percent majority in Sejm.

But on the other hand, the Senat dominated by Solidarity could have vetoed any legislation passed by the Sejm, and any communist cabinet might have been efficiently blocked from the very beginning.

To overcome that impasse, Solidarity agreed to support the general's candidacy for the post of president in exchange for taking responsibility for the government.

Jaruzelski was elected president in a combined vote by the Sejm and Senat in July, and in August Tadeusz Mazowiecki was approved as Poland's first noncommunist prime minister. A new cabinet was in place by September.

Thus Solidarity, which began life as a trade union created to protect workers from the government, became the government itself. This unprecedented duality of Solidarity was the single biggest contributing factor to the subsequent political quarrels among its leaders, and to deepening resentment at the postcommunist reality among ordinary workers as the pains of economic transformation began to gnaw their way into increasingly wide groups of Polish society.

Dealing With The Past

The political elites are divided primarily over the way the first Solidarity-led government treated the former communist rulers.

Solidarity veterans like current Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his twin brother Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who leads the largest opposition party, now maintain that Solidarity made a big mistake in not purging communists from the political and economic life of the country after it took power in 1989.

Those veterans argue, not without reason, that former communist dignitaries found themselves among the main beneficiaries of Poland's postcommunist transformation, since they not only avoided retribution for their past misdeeds, but were also able to return to power later after reinventing themselves as social democrats.

Moreover, retaining their political ties, fortunes, and leverage from the communist period, these communist dignitaries were the first to benefit from the privatization process launched in 1990. In other words, former communists easily became capitalists, while many rank-and-file Solidarity members were plunged into poverty after the fall of communism.
A Solidarity election poster from 1989

Those arguments are corroborated by repeated sociological surveys in Poland over the past 10 years.

The latest survey regarding the results of Poland's transformation in 1989-2009, which was conducted by the respected CBOS pollster in February, shows that when asked what in the country has changed for the worse in comparison with the communist era, Poles most often mention high unemployment, poor health care, the higher cost of living, low wages, widespread poverty, corruption, and social and economic inequality.

When asked about changes for the better, respondents usually list the wider variety of food available in the shops, generally better standards of living, open borders and freedom of travel, restitution of private property, freedom of expression, and integration with Europe (NATO and EU membership).

The defenders of the course taken in 1989, who include former President Lech Walesa and current Prime Minister Donald Tusk, maintain that the 1989 deal with the communists, which effectively precluded political revenge by Solidarity on the communists, paved the way for a peaceful transition from totalitarianism to democracy in Poland and served as a model solution for other communist countries to follow.

Jan Maksymiuk is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Belarus Service. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL