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The Warsaw Voice » Other » February 18, 2009
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The Peaceful Way Is the Best Way
February 18, 2009   
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Former Solidarity labor union leader and ex-president Lech Wałęsa talks to Andrzej Jonas and Marcin Mierzejewski.

To what extent have your dreams from the early days of the Solidarity trade union come true in today's Poland?
In terms of assumptions and planning, everything has come true because what I fought for was to create ways for the communist system to collapse. As a young boy, I used to hear from my parents and other people that we had been betrayed in September 1939 and then in 1945, and that the [communist] system had been imposed on us. But there was a spark of hope in these words-a hope that the next generation would break free from this system so detested by the older generations. And indeed, my generation-with my contribution-succeeded in doing so. My mission, as I understood it, was to do the job, create opportunities, enable freedom and plurality, and then let the people handle the affairs on their own.

Does this mean that bringing the communist system down was only the first stage of a two-stage process?
In fact, there were three stages. The first one involved building our own monopoly [on power] in order to destroy the communist monopoly. The second stage, after our victory, was to turn our monopoly into democracy, plurality and a free market. The third stage was to help society organize itself into political parties, individual trade unions and groups defending their economic interests.

Those were the goals that I set myself and pursued at that time. And I do not think there was something particularly ingenious about it because other countries that were coming out of the communist system following our example took a similar course. Rather, I simply responded to what life brought us.

When did you realize that you would have to do more than just defeat the communists-that you and your aides would be responsible for building a new Poland?
Of course, I thought about that. But I was convinced that if I, as a blue-collar worker, knew what to do and how, other social groups would come up with ready solutions once freedom arrived. But I was disappointed-when freedom came, the programs we needed were not there, although I had signaled as early as the martial law period that we should be working on them. I believed all the time that when freedom came we would manage to pull ourselves together somehow, even if we had no programs and had to improvise. But I did not expect that self-interests of various kind would emerge so quickly in a free Poland.

In your opinion, is it more difficult to fight for freedom or work for the country once freedom is already there?
It depends on how well one is prepared. It seemed to us we were ready for both, but eventually it turned out we were prepared better to fight. We didn't know each other well enough, there were not enough meetings and talks. The secret police did not allow that. Before we had come to power, we did not have an opportunity to try our hand at work in less important posts and gain experience. Additionally, various interest groups emerged along with people's ambitions. All that created great difficulties at a time when we were at the stage of building things.

From the beginning of Poland's journey toward freedom, you insisted that the country should be changed in a peaceful, evolutionary manner. Looking back, what would you tell those who still have to fight for freedom in other countries-is the peaceful way really the only way?
It is the most effective way, but one has to become mature enough to follow it. One needs to have support from people who are in favor of such a course. Those in power will always hold an advantage when it comes to shooting and power play-after all they have the armed forces and weapons. Of course, there are revolts, though rare, in which some of the armed forces go over to the other side. However, I will always support peaceful methods. But let me repeat, their success depends on whether people come to meetings, want to print and read things and undergo training. This cannot be done overnight and cannot be imposed from the outside. The measures that are needed here are like rungs in a ladder. In order to reach the highest rung, which is freedom, one has to go through all the intervening stages.

Critics say Poland has been paying the price for your political compromise with the communists during the Round Table talks in 1989. But wouldn't this price be higher if you had set out on a warpath instead?
The problem is that it is impossible to calculate this in theory. And I wouldn't want to check what it would've looked like if we had taken to shooting and street battles. This is why I'm always in favor of a peaceful way, although someone might say that the other method would've been faster and better if we had completely removed the people involved in the communist regime. But were we strong enough for such confrontation with them? The communist authorities were always better at that sort of thing. This is why I think the choice we made was the best, despite the fact that a peaceful way is longer and has its price. But you cannot get anything for free.

Who do you think was your best ally at the time of fighting for freedom and building an independent Poland?
Having committed myself to the cause, I had to rely either on the elites or the masses. I chose the latter.

But the elites accompanied you.
Indeed, but I was aware that the elites might be planning something sinister, and that they might behave in an unexpected way. So I decided to use advisers from among the elites, but first of all sought firm support from the masses so as to protect our movement from internal divisions and treason. I knew the masses would not let anyone divide us. I followed this rule until I became president, relying on the masses and using the elites to solve specific problems in a wise manner, yet always keeping my distance from them in political matters.

To what extent is today's Poland the way you expected it to be after the fall of communism?
If someone had told me in the past that I would live to see Poland the way it is now I would not have believed that. A free, democratic country with open borders-that was unbelievable. On the other hand, I can see today that we messed up a lot of things-and that many things could have been done better.

Some people are questioning your honesty and your role in the struggle for freedom under communism. Did you ever expect that this could happen in a free Poland?
It depends when. The Kaczyński brothers based their success on demagogy and populism at some point, and this means they have had to undermine my role and the importance of the past 20 years to stay afloat-because they can only exist in politics through constant negation. They have nothing positive to offer. This is their political choice, a choice they have made deliberately, threatening everyone with agents and plots. This is how I understand it and I do not think there is anything else to it. Whenever we meet with resistance, when someone opposes us, we should try to understand what it is all about. If one understands the situation well, one can come up with a good treatment plan.

When you headed Solidarity and met with world leaders, did they understand your policy? Did they consider your goals to be realistic?
To begin with, I did not trust them myself. It is no secret today that the Americans only pretended to be fighting against communism, while in fact until the very end they supported Gorbachev, who wanted to reform the system. And what if Gorbachev had won? In such a case communism would still exist with the help of the Americans! This is why I trusted no one-I knew I had an idea of what an independent Poland should be like, though everyone else had their own concept.

You meet with influential people from opinion-making milieus around the world. You talk to students about global problems. What do you tell them?
The world we lived in until the end of the 20th century-the bipolar world-is no more. Today, we have good opportunities for peace and development, but we have to understand that new structures and new programs are needed. And until we create them we will continue to build the world along the old lines, and we will be living in uncertainty and a greater sense of danger than at the time of the Iron Curtain because more and more countries have nuclear weapons nowadays.

Speaking about the future, I keep telling people that the development of the world is impossible without relying on universal values-on which we have to agree together. No one I talk to denies that. I hope in five or 10 years these discussions will lead us to formulating a program and setting up structures capable of responding to global challenges.

Is solidarity one of the values you are referring to?
Yes, solidarity is definitely one of them. Of course, it is not about the kind of solidarity a trade union needs. I mean the kind of solidarity the European Union should show in the face of a gas crisis with Russia, for instance.

One can explain this notion in the following way: you are unable to carry a burden on your own, but we can carry it together. And there are many burdens in store for the world. One of the greatest problems will be China, which does not fit into the Western model of globalization when it comes to human rights and other issues. This kind of solidarity is especially needed in matters that can make the world more secure because all other things will fall into place by themselves.

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