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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » September 30, 2013
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Simple Solutions
September 30, 2013   
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Lech Wałęsa talks to Andrzej Jonas and Witold Żygulski.

Let’s begin with a question you may have never been asked before...
I don’t think there is such a question...

Let’s try anyway: Was there a decision made 25 years ago that no blood would be spilled as the democratic opposition confronted the communist government? Did Solidarity activists agree to refrain from violence?
I did not believe until the mid-1970s that you could overthrow communism without bloodshed. It wasn’t until some time later, after I became an opposition activist in earnest, that my colleagues, such as Bogdan Borusewicz [current Speaker of the Senate and a former democratic opposition activist], convinced me that if force were used, our chances would be next to nothing. Our opponent was better than us and if we had taken up arms, we would have set Poland on fire. The peaceful path was the only path left. It took a long time, but they persuaded me that victory by any other method was not possible. Not unless a major war broke out, but if that happened, it would probably be a nuclear war and everything would get destroyed. We didn’t know where exactly, but somewhere in Poland there may have been Soviet silos with nuclear warheads in them and in the event of war, many Polish cities would be annihilated.

The generals of the communist People’s Army of Poland knew that too, because most of them had been trained in Moscow and were shown what would happen if a European or global conflict broke out.

So all we could use in the battle were arguments. It was our only hope for succeeding in the end. Those who during opposition meetings proposed using force were either reasoned with or isolated as potential troublemakers.

In the autumn of 1988, the peaceful Solidarity revolution led to the start of the Round Table talks—unprecedented negotiations between the communist authorities and the opposition. Looking back at the past quarter of a century, would you have changed anything in how the opposition approached the talks?
Overthrowing communism was not something you could do in one go. They hoped to outsmart us and I hoped to outsmart them. The communists thought that they would allocate us one in three seats [up for grabs in the lower house of parliament in a free election; the Round Table talks reserved the remaining seats for the communists], and everybody in Poland would be happy. They would retain power and we would help them carry out the necessary economic and social reforms. I, on the other hand, was convinced they could be outsmarted, even on terms which seemingly worked to their advantage. And that’s what happened. So when it comes to the Round Table days, there is nothing I would have done differently. My dilemma was a totally different one: I kept asking myself if my generation really was the one to make the change happen. The conditions were right for us—the pope was Polish and a change was taking place in the Soviet Union. [Leonid] Brezhnev, [Yuri] Andropov, [Konstantin] Chernenko and finally Mikhail Gorbachev had all helped destabilize and weaken the system. Such were the circumstances in which we accomplished the greatest victory in the history of Poland: communism was defeated and the Red Army was withdrawn from Poland without bloodshed and Poland regained full sovereignty.

But I still knew that we, the democratic opposition, were unprepared to reform Poland. I knew we were in for a difficult time that required skills we did not yet possess. I realized how complicated it would be to carry out democratic changes in politics and free market changes to the economy. Right from the beginning, I repeatedly told people: today you’re holding me up as a hero, tomorrow you’ll be throwing stones at me...

Back then, during the Round Table talks and after Solidarity won the parliamentary election of June 4, 1989, did you imagine that 25 years on, Poland would be where it is today?
If at the time somebody had told me that Poland would look the way it does today, there would be no way of persuading me it would all happen. Even if these days I consider myself the luckiest man alive, I am still aware of how much we messed up over these 25 years. I believe many of those mistakes were inevitable, but then again, I am convinced that had I been reelected for a second term as president, everything would have been different. I had a better plan worked out for Poland; we would have been admitted to NATO and the EU on different and much more advantageous terms. I could be an equal partner in talks, I could stand up to Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, because I had won. I had said before that I would win, but they had their doubts. So, I was now able to argue that the free world had won the Cold War thanks to Poland and that the superpowers in the West needed to pay for it by admitting Poland to their ranks on better terms than they eventually did. So, I’m both for and against: I’m happy to have lived to see a free Poland, but I also realize how much we messed up in the past two decades and how often we let others outmaneuver us. Our example shows how all revolutions are doomed, how they all make the same mistakes. You win a big victory and then you hand your victory over to the bureaucrats and politicians, who let it all go to waste.

The problem with Poland’s victory was also that the whole of Central and Eastern Europe followed suit and then the Soviet Union fell apart and Germany reunited. That was too big a victory to sensibly follow up on, nobody was prepared. I had an idea back then to get only Poland out of communism and into the West, but that could not work any more. Martial law had held us back eight years and then changes snowballed across the communist bloc in Europe. Afterwards, the West left us to our own devices, even though we were prepared for neither democracy nor a market economy. We were missing almost everything needed to carry out effective reforms in Poland.

I said to politicians in the West, I warned them: Don’t give your money to the Soviets! Give it to your capitalists and make sure it does end up in Poland and Russia, but only as investment. They did not listen to me, they gave the money to the Soviets, it all got stolen and is now gone for good.

Do you think a new generation has emerged over the past 25 years which can be trusted to run the country?
I don’t. There are still a lot of things that our generation needs to sort out. Just 25 years ago, I said the right and left wing needed redefining so that politics could keep up with the new world. Left-wingers do not believe in God and believe in state ownership, while right-wingers believe in God and private property. But the main parties of today, the Civic Platform (PO) and Law and Justice (PiS), are all about tricking people to get votes, there is no program and no logic behind what they do. People are confused and have a hard time deciding whose side they are on and who to vote for.

What do you think Poland will be like in another 20 years?
This is a time of changing eras, a transition from the era of states to one of a differently organized, more complicated world. This new organization has been necessitated by new technology. Globalization has for years been a fact that nobody can deny. We need to draw up a sort of a list of things that will happen spontaneously and those that need to be helped along, both globally and in Europe. Things which used to be good for individual states are no longer adequate and need to be improved on.

To begin with, the economic system no longer fits our needs. Communism compromised itself and so obviously is no longer an option. But capitalism as we know it isn’t working either. Just look at all the protests around the world. Of course, there are different forms and models of capitalism, but they are all founded on some common premises. I have many times visited countries that have seen anti-capitalist protests—I was invited there as an expert and adviser. And I noticed that the protesters never challenge the fundamental capitalist principles of a free market and private property. What they do challenge are other aspects that can be improved. The question, then, is about the extent to which we need to improve capitalism in order to avoid mass protests in the coming years and decades.

The second thing is a crisis of democracy. You can easily see that these days, nobody takes politicians seriously any more. But you can’t just go out on the streets and throw stones to solve problems. Democracy used to grant rights to people and, in my opinion, now is time to add responsibilities to the rights, so that a level-headed dialogue can begin between governments and people.

There is also the third and most important question: what should all the changes, all the improvements of the system be founded on? We need to agree on new values, something I call “the 10 secular commandments.” They have to be adopted by the whole of Europe.

Do you think a consensus of that kind is even possible?
That’s not the question. The question is: is it now time to reach an agreement, or do we have to dish out some more bruises and spill some more blood? Should we stand still or take a step back from the challenges of the new era? We need to talk and agree on something and the results will follow. After all, in the beginning was the word and the word became flesh. This is a time of weighty, historical debate. That’s the only way—we need to decide what we can agree on. New programs and new politicians will emerge in the process. Otherwise, there will be no progress, because nobody believes that the current solutions are effective. Look at Brussels: bureaucracy keeps escalating, everybody is keeping tabs on everybody else, and yet no problems get solved.

Are you an optimist nevertheless?
The story of my life is that nothing has ever been served on a silver platter to me. Everything I achieved, I did it all by myself, which is why I believe there is always a way, you can always find one. The simpler the solution, the better, but the damned red tape makes everything so complicated. I saw it happen when I was a worker and I saw it when I was the president.

I believe the future belongs to an “equilateral triangle” made up of trade unions, social organizations and the owners of the means of production. They should be the ones to discuss all solutions, starting with the simplest ones, such as how to standardize our computer systems.

We might, of course, spend some more time repeating the same mistakes and fighting each other, but at the end of the day we will have to reach an agreement and devise a new socioeconomic order.

Rich people are not keen to share anything with the poor anymore, but there are other ways. I often encourage Germans to start building roads in Albania. Albanians will never build new roads on their own, not even in a hundred years, but if my idea is put into practice then new roads can be built in a short time, the region will become easily accessible and Germans will be able to put up toll booths and collect tolls for, say, 50 years. Everybody will be happy.

Similarly, those who do have money could launch different projects in different areas of Europe to bring profits to the entire EU and benefit European development and European security in every sense of the word. So we need to identify areas where this could be done instead of keeping ourselves busy with totally pointless matters. The EU has decided to choose a sort of president for itself and only later began to wonder what the president should actually be doing. As it turns out, it would be best for the president to do nothing.


Factfile
Lech Wałęsa. Born: Sept. 29, 1943. Profession: electrician
Helped found and was the leader of Solidarity, the communist bloc’s first independent trade union.

In August 1980 he was a signatory of the first agreement between a communist government and free trade unions in Central and Eastern Europe.

Interned after the authorities imposed martial law in Poland Dec. 13, 1981. Released in November 1982.

Received the Nobel Peace Prize Oct. 5, 1983. The prize was collected by his wife Danuta and their eldest son Bogdan, aged 13 at the time, because Wałęsa had been denied a passport and could not leave abroad.

Wałęsa was the chief architect of the Round Table talks (autumn 1988-spring 1989), which led to an unprecedented agreement between the government of a communist country and the democratic opposition. Following the agreement, a partially free parliamentary election was held, free trade unions were legalized, and the government made many other concessions.
After Solidarity won all the seats available to it in the parliamentary election of June 4, 1989, Wałęsa formed a coalition with the United People’s Party (ZSL) and the Democratic Party (SD), which were formerly controlled by the communist Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR), which had ruled in Poland since the 1940s. The coalition made it possible to oust the PZPR, and the country’s first noncommunist government, headed by Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, was formed in the autumn of 1989.

Wałęsa went on to become president of Poland from 1990 to 1995. The Voice named him Man of the Year in 1989 and handed him its Chair of Two Decades award in 2008.


Wałęsa Biopic Unveiled
A long-awaited biopic of Poland’s former Solidarity trade union leader Lech Wałęsa directed by Academy Award winner Andrzej Wajda premiered Sept. 6 at the Venice Film Festival.

The new film, Wałęsa. Man of Hope, is the final part of an ambitious trilogy that charts Poland’s often turbulent history under more than four decades of communist rule.

Wajda is one of Poland’s most respected directors. He received an Oscar for lifetime achievement in 2000.

The first film in his trilogy, Man of Marble from 1976, is regarded as a masterpiece of Poland’s “cinema of moral unrest” in the latter half of the 1970s. The second part of the series, Man of Iron, won the Golden Palm at the Cannes film festival and was also nominated for an Academy Award.

Man of Marble and Man of Iron told the story of workers involved in the democratic opposition movement in northern Poland in the 1970s and 1980s, a period of mass anticommunist protests. The main characters were inspired by real-life opposition activists, including those who went on to play an important role in public life after communism fell in 1989.

Part three of Wajda’s trilogy focuses on Wałęsa—the founder of the Solidarity movement who went on to become president of Poland—in the first years of his oppositionist activities. Viewers see Wałęsa, played by popular actor Robert Więckiewicz, as an electrician at the Gdańsk Shipyard who, harassed by the communist authorities, follows a path in politics that eventually leads him to winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The movie culminates with Wałęsa delivering a historic speech before the U.S. Congress in November 1989.

Wał´sa. Man of Hope opens in Poland Oct. 4. The Polish Film Institute has announced that the movie will be Poland’s candidate for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.
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