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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » June 17, 2009
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Poland Marks 20 Years of Freedom
June 17, 2009 By W.Ż.    
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A host of foreign political leaders descended on Poland to join the country's top officials in high-profile celebrations marking 20 years since the historic June 4, 1989 parliamentary elections that heralded the collapse of communism here.

Despite appeals to Poland's most senior politicians to put bitter infighting on hold and to show unity, the celebrations, in which thousands across the country took part, were marred by tension.

Lech Wałęsa, former leader of the Solidarity trade union, which played a key part in the demise of communism, Hans-Gert Pöttering, the president of the European Parliament and deputies from 24 parliaments in Europe attended a special session of the lower house of the parliament, the Sejm, June 3.

"Polish people have always loved freedom and over the past two centuries, they have repeatedly proved that in the name of freedom, they are ready to sacrifice much, their property and even their lives," said Bronisław Komorowski, the lower house Speaker. "Twenty years ago, what seemed impossible became possible," Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first noncommunist prime minister, added.

"1989 was one of tremendous changes, it was fascinating," said Pöttering, emphasizing that the elections in Poland that year precipitated transformation across Central and Eastern Europe. He added that one of the main streets in Berlin, Unter den Linden, had recently been adorned with posters reading "It all started in Gdańsk."

"Without Gdańsk [the cradle of the Solidarity trade union movement], June 4 would not have happened and the unification of our continent would have been more painstaking and it would not have concluded the way it has," Pöttering said.

Former Polish president Aleksander Kwaśniewski, who also took part in the celebrations, said that the Polish left had made an "unusual, remarkable and respectable contribution" to the democratic transformations that had taken place over the past 20 years in Poland and the whole of Europe. Kwaśniewski criticized the decision not to invite to the special parliamentary session Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the architect of martial law of 1981 who later advocated a compromise with the opposition. Jaruzelski had been one of the people behind the idea for the Round Table talks, the negotiations between the communist authorities and the opposition which resulted in 1989 in the country's first partially-free elections after World War II. He then became the first president of Poland, elected at a joint session of both houses of the parliament in July 1989.

President Lech Kaczyński, who has fallen out with both Wałęsa and Prime Minister Donald Tusk, came to the parliament on the day of the session to see Polish Road to Freedom 1980-1989, an exhibition documenting the events of the 1980s in Poland, but he then left the building before the session proper began. Asked why he would not be taking part in the main event, Kaczyński said, "I have other plans."

International 20th anniversary commemorations took place June 4 at the Wawel Castle in Cracow. Invited by Tusk, the guests included German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the prime ministers of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Ukraine and Romania and ex-presidents Wałęsa and Kwaśniewski.

Kaczyński did not show up in Cracow either, because he was taking part in anniversary commemorations in Gdańsk, organized by the Solidarity trade union. "The successes of the past 20 years include freedom, an independent country and modernization, but there have been failures too: the present situation of the Gdańsk shipyard and unemployment," Kaczyński told trade unionists at a rally on Solidarity Square in front of the Monument to Fallen Shipyard Workers. "The state has to serve all people and not just the rich," Kaczyński added.

Janusz Śniadek, the Solidarity trade union leader, said that the Solidarity generation had not always benefited from the democratic transformations in Poland after 1989. Śniadek added that "many communist crimes still have not been judged."

Alongside the central commemorations, the 20th anniversary of the demise of communism was celebrated at different events across Poland. In Katowice in southern Poland, thousands of orange balloons with attached "time capsules" were released to the sky in a project entitled A Flight to Freedom. It was a reference to a campaign from March 5, 1982, when Polish opposition activists traveled to a beach on the Danish island of Bornholm to release 10,000 balloons which carried flyers with uncensored news to Poland.

Young artists from Lublin, eastern Poland, dispatched seven ballot boxes to different countries June 4. The boxes, with "Elections June 4, 1989," "Made in Poland" and "Handle with Care-Freedom Spirit" written on them, were sent to Prague, Bucharest, Budapest and Berlin, cities which in 1989 witnessed momentous changes leading to the fall of the communism. One box was sent to the president of the European Commission in Brussels and another one to the Chinese minister of foreign affairs in Beijing. The seventh box went to Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

In the western city of Szczecin, the anniversary celebrations began with a toast which the local authorities and Szczecin residents raised in front of the City Administration while drinking orangeade, a beverage commonly associated with communist Poland. The authorities also opened an outdoor exhibition entitled 1989. The Birth of Freedom. The Elections of June 4 and 18, 1989, in Szczecin.
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