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Solidarity Celebrations Divide Poland

Lech Walesa leading Solidarity in better days.
Lech Walesa leading Solidarity in better days.
Twenty years ago today postwar Poland conducted its first so-called partially free elections, in which the ruling Communist Party suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Solidarity. Today this anniversary is being marked in an atmosphere of dispute and conflict among people who were once comrades in the anticommunist movement.

As a result of the June 1989 elections, Poland became the first socialist-camp country in which representatives of civil society (mostly from the Solidarity labor movement) were given a real opportunity to share in the governing of the country.

The decision to hold these partially free elections (under which 65 percent of the seats in the lower house of the legislature were guaranteed for the Communist Party, while elections to the Senate were completely open) came as a result of a compromise between the authorities and Solidarity that was struck at the legendary "Roundtable."

Solidarity leader Lech Walesa promised an end to a wave of national strikes, while the authorities pledged to allow the opposition to participate in the elections.

In the end, the opposition won 92 of 100 Senate seats and all but one of the lower-house seats that they were able to contest. On August 24, 1989, the opposition was able to form a government headed by Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki.

"I intend to create a government that is able to act in the interests of the people and the state," Mazowiecki declared. "It will be a government for all Poles regardless of their views or convictions, which cannot serve as criteria for dividing people into categories."

Victors Divided

But the current commemoration of these events is once again exposing divisions. In May, during the congress of the European People's Party, there were several clashes between police and Solidarity demonstrators.

Workers from several Polish shipyards came out to protest against layoffs and the possible closure of some yards. Police used tear gas after demonstrators set fire to cars in the streets and tried to force their way into the congress venue. Trade union activists appealed to the prosecutor's office, arguing that the police measures had been unlawful.

Union leader Boguslaw Zietek was glad to see the politicians out of Gdansk.
Prime Minister Donald Tusk has moved the political part of the 20th-anniversary commemorations -- the centerpiece of which is a summit of the Visegrad Four -- from Gdansk to Krakow. The reason for the switch was that several union leaders had announced plans to hold further demonstrations in Gdansk, the cradle of the Solidarity revolution.

"It wouldn't be Polish to invite guests and then have to evacuate them out from under burning tires and exploding firecrackers," Tusk said.

But the head of the opposition Law and Justice party Jaroslaw Kaczynski retorted: "The only place to mark this anniversary is in Gdansk. There can be no doubt about this. Those who moved the ceremonies outside the city simply lack courage."

Other union activists considered Tusk's decision an affront to them, emphasizing that they had no intention of doing anything unlawful.

"There will be workers in Gdansk, for whom this place is holy," said Boguslaw Zietek, leader of the August '80 trade union. "We don't give a damn where the political elite will be lounging about on June 4. In fact, we can even see some parallels with the past in this: the kings and monarchs will be in the castle in Krakow and the simple people will be in Gdansk."

All this put Walesa in a difficult situation. The legendary leader of Solidarity had difficulty deciding where he should be marking the 20th anniversary of his victory over the communist system. In the end, he split the difference and said he'd put in appearances both in Gdansk and in Krakow. But in his statements he did not hide his rage over the fact that today's Solidarity is nothing like the movement he founded 20 years ago.

"If this circus continues," Walesa said, "then I will simply gather the signatures of the 10 million people who were once members of Solidarity. I'll collect more signatures than there are members in today's Solidarity. And then I'll go to them and say: 'You have no right to use the heritage of that Solidarity to pursue your goals. Hand over the banners of that union.'

"We were much larger. We achieved great transformations. Not them. Either they have to begin acting sensibly or we will have to take away this symbol from them."

Unity, Without Politics

Poles often take offense whenever some foreigner says the symbol of the defeat of communism is the fall of the Berlin Wall. After all, it all began with the famous roundtable and the first noncommunist government -- in Poland.

So it is even more incomprehensible for average Poles when they see the disputes of politicians who cannot forget about their personal ambitions and come together for this momentous celebration. Obviously it is harder to convince the world of the huge importance of June 4, 1989, when the camp of the onetime victors is so deeply divided.

"We are doing everything possible to ensure that this is a day more of unity than of argument," Culture Minister Bogdan Zdrojewski said. "May June 4 be a day of joy and celebration, rather than one of bitterness."

But average Poles want to mark this anniversary without their politicians. That is why some 150 Polish organizations banded together to form an association called Together 1989-2009.

"The point is simple. We will thank those whom we consider heroes of the transition with a special page on the Internet," Together 1989-2009 organizer Szymon Gutowski said.

"And we will arrange numerous happenings, concerts, and exhibitions. This is a great date and it must be a holiday. We will organize it with joy, without politicians, in our own way."

Aleksandr Lemeshevsky is a Warsaw-based contributor to RFE/RL's Russian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL