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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » November 28, 2013
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From the editor
November 28, 2013   
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—“You keep encouraging me to say something critical. But I’m positive about us, about the times we live in and about the future.”
—“You’re getting me wrong. I’m also an optimist and want you to confirm that you agree with my optimistic outlook.”

The above exchange between Tadeusz Mazowiecki and myself came in one of the last interviews he gave before he died Oct. 28. It speaks volumes about the former Polish prime minister, a man who oversaw the country’s transition to democracy after it shook off communism in 1989.

Mazowiecki was a statesman who was truly committed to society and to the country. As the first noncommunist prime minister of Poland after World War II, he undertook to accomplish an extraordinary mission: to travel a road where no one before him had been as the country prepared to make a historic transition from totalitarianism to democracy, from central planning to a free market, from communism to capitalism.

The old system was dying, the new one was just emerging. The difference between yearning for freedom and being free is the same as between dreaming about flying and actually taking to the skies.

Reflecting on all this as we talked—25 years after the start of the historic changes that transformed Poland—Mazowiecki said: “We rather tended to idealize democracy, and only saw its good sides.”

In reality, his government struggled with a ubiquitous shortage of funds—there was not even enough money for medicines for patients, public expectations were running high, people were only learning the ropes of democracy, and extremists were trying to elbow their way into politics.

Under such conditions, a golden mean was desperately needed. Step forward Tadeusz Mazowiecki. He was a man of moderation and remained so until the end of his days. Although he was prime minister for less than 18 months, he laid down the foundations for almost everything that has been built since. He offered a unique combination of faithfulness to strict principles and an untiring determination to strive for consensus.

He set an example of what it meant to be Polish and European at the same time. He combined an openness to the new with a respect for tradition.

Statesmen are able to influence history with the power of either their spirit or actions. Mazowiecki had both. He was politically active when Poland was controlled by the Soviet Union—as a social activist, parliamentarian and dissident—and also when the country ditched communism. After he stopped being prime minister, he helped draft Poland’s new constitution and also worked as a special U.N. envoy to Bosnia during the war in the Balkans. He was the only international official who resigned in protest against the impotence of the international community in the face of that conflict. He never stopped being active. In the last few years before his death, he led a team of advisors to President Bronisław Komorowski.
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