November 28, 2013
This interview with Tadeusz Mazowiecki was conducted Aug. 27 as part of our series of extended interviews with key figures in Poland’s transition from communism to a free-market economy, which began in 1988/1989, the period when The Warsaw Voice itself appeared: the first issue of this magazine hit the newsstands Oct. 23, 1988. As part of this series of interviews, we have also talked to Lech Wałęsa, Bogdan Borusewicz, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, and Leszek Balcerowicz. The interviews with Wałęsa and Borusewicz have already been published. A full version of this latest interview will be published in the December issue of the Voice, which will be out on the streets at the end of November.
Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who as Poland’s first non-communist prime minister after World War II oversaw the country’s transition to democracy, talks to Andrzej Jonas and Witold Żygulski.
Poland managed to steer clear of major bloodshed in 1980 and 1981. Was this thanks to the tactics of the democratic opposition, or just luck?
It was not just because of what we did, but also thanks to the position of the other side. There were no secret arrangements unknown to the general public, either then or later. The regularly reappearing allegations that we had clinched some behind-the-scenes deal are nothing but conspiracy theories. History shows that you do not need to make deals to be able to see or predict certain things.
A major change in 1980 was that our most important demand was met—legalization of a trade union independent of the authorities at the time. This was a revolution in the communist system of that era. The strikers were not aiming to take power, but only to create a sphere of freedom inside the [communist] system. This was achieved through the legalization of Solidarity.
For the other side, I think the experience of 1970, when a worker protest was bloodily suppressed in the northern coastal region, was an important factor. This was why the communists did not want to resort to similar tactics.
Of course, we were also afraid of an intervention from the outside. Please remember that this was still the era of Leonid Brezhnev [the communist leader of the USSR].
Briefly put, in 1980 we were dealing with a major change, but one taking place within certain limits resulting from the geopolitical situation of Poland, Europe and the world at the time.
Years later, however, there were voices that the changes would have been faster and turned out better for Poland if the opposition at the time had been ready to “sacrifice blood”...
Such a sacrifice had been made in Poland several times in history, and these were terribly costly offerings. I think Poles valued the fact that these changes occurred peacefully. The blood sacrifice in 1980-1981 would’ve had to be very big and it wouldn’t have brought freedom at all. Of course, there were people who were pressing for more, but not at the time of the August strike. It was only later that some people appeared who said “this is not enough.” That's what usually happens in history: those who do not take part in negotiations themselves later often argue that it was possible to achieve much more.
Some politicians are now making similar comments about the Round Table agreements, which were concluded nine years later...
The situation is similar. Our main demand during the Round Table negotiations was to reinstate Solidarity [the trade union was banned after the imposition of martial law in Poland on Dec. 13, 1981]. As we all know, we achieved much more: fully free elections to the Senate, partially free elections to the Sejm [the lower house of parliament], freedom of the press, and so on. After that things moved so quickly that we got much more than we had agreed on during the Round Table talks; the political system changed.
At that time, you opposed a proposal by Adam Michnik, editor-in-chief of the newly established Gazeta Wyborcza daily newspaper—the first fully independent newspaper in Poland—who in a memorable piece entitled “Your President, Our Prime Minister” proposed that the job of prime minister should go to a member of the democratic opposition after the communists voted in General Wojciech Jaruzelski as president...
I’m constantly being reproached for that... but indeed I was against that idea—but I wasn’t the only one who was against; people like Jan Nowak-Jeziorański [former longtime head of the Polish section of Radio Free Europe] also opposed that idea. We were afraid that success could go to our heads in a sense, but we also did not feel fully ready to take over the reins of power in the country. But things went much faster [than we expected] and I revised my point of view so much that I myself became prime minister in September 1989.
When taking over as prime minister, could you have imagined just what a long road Poland would travel and where it would be 25 years later?
My imagination certainly did not stretch that far in those days. Actually, I do not think that anybody could have predicted the actual course of events. Still, undoubtedly, I could feel and I knew that this was a time of a great watershed that would sooner or later spread across Central and Eastern Europe. However, I was prepared for a scenario in which this could prove to be a slow process, and that for quite some time we would be alone [in terms of democratic reforms in the region]. As is known, my concerns turned out to be unfounded and the European "Spring of Nations" went much faster [than I expected].
I actually think that the West did not expect such a fast pace of change either and was not prepared for such a rapid disintegration of the communist system. Of course, there was talk at the time about a new architecture in Europe, but this was a somewhat vague concept. After all, the West was already very advanced in the process of European integration, so it did not want it to be watered down in a wider arrangement. But at the same time [politicians in the West] were aware that historic events were taking place in Central and Eastern Europe. So the West had to open itself up somehow.
Finally, it was not clear how the democratic changes would look in the Soviet Union. No one was able to predict that. It turned out that these changes occurred without posing a risk to neighboring countries, but they did not produce a definitive result in terms of the democratic process. However, the picture in Europe and the world changed.
Judging by what has happened in the last quarter of a century, do you think Europe and the United States rose to the challenge during the transition period?
Such speculation boils down to making somewhat abstract judgments about history. All the players did what they did. Europe has changed; we are surrounded by a completely different world than 25 years ago.
But Lech Wałęsa, for example, told us that the West should have done much more, that thanks to Poland it benefited from the end of the Cold War...
Undoubtedly, it is possible to conclude that Poland rocked the existing geo-political system by initiating democratic changes in Central and Eastern Europe. It is also probably true that the West gradually and slowly became aware of the prospect of the big benefits resulting from this process. I myself, like many people in Poland, was hoping at some point for something along the lines of the Marshall Plan, but nothing like that happened. We only managed to secure, after difficult negotiations, a reduction in Poland’s foreign debt. It is possible to say that Western funds for development did not arrive until 2004, when Poland joined the European Union.
When taking over power, was the opposition at the time aware of what democracy entailed? Did it realize that this is by no means an easy system?
No, we were not aware of that. We rather tended to idealize democracy, and only saw its good sides. In fact, that is not surprising; we had been yearning for freedom too long. So, we did not pay much attention to such characteristics of democracy as chaos and internal bickering.
For Mazowiecki the glass was always half full. At one point, as we talked, he said: “You keep encouraging me to say something critical. But I’m positive about us, about the times we live in and about the future.”
Stepping aside from his journalistic role as a devil’s advocate, Jonas said:
“You’re getting me wrong. I’m also an optimist and want you to confirm that you agree with my optimistic outlook.”