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The Warsaw Voice » Politics » September 29, 2014
Politics & Society
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A Quarter of a Century on
September 29, 2014   
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One recent Polish anniversary passed almost unnoticed in the international media. That’s hardly surprising because events in Ukraine and the madness of the so-called Islamic State have been dominating the front pages of newspapers and making headlines in the electronic media. But back home people remember that it’s been 25 years since Poland’s first noncommunist government after World War II was formed. Both supporters and critics of the course of the country’s transition from communism to a market economy acknowledge the importance of this anniversary.

On Sept. 12, 1989, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, for many years a well-known figure in the democratic opposition, delivered a policy speech in parliament and secured support for his Cabinet without a single dissenting voice. Notably, the parliament at the time by no means reflected the actual balance of political views among the population. It was the result of a compromise concluded between the communists, who were slowly receding into historical oblivion, and the democratic opposition, following Round Table negotiations that ended five months earlier. Under that compromise, 65 percent of the seats were set aside for the communist Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) and its satellite parties; only 35 percent could go—and did go—to the opposition.

Mazowiecki’s government had a shaky political base when it was beginning its work, despite the fact that the United Peasants’ Party (ZSL) and the Democratic Party (SD), both PZPR satellites, quickly switched sides and supported the anticommunist opposition—thanks to factors including a clever tactic employed by Solidarity trade union leader Lech Wałęsa, who had convinced their leaders that the days of the PZPR, which was in power throughout the communist period, were numbered. Several important ministries, including those of defense and internal affairs, remained in the hands of the PZPR. The presidency went to General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the former dictator who had imposed martial law in Poland in 1981. Embarking on a process of political, social and especially economic reforms in such conditions was a task bordering on the impossible.

And yet these efforts succeeded. Years later, Mazowiecki is widely named in opinion polls as the best prime minister of postcommunist Poland. The achievements of his government are cited as a model peaceful transition. Even Leszek Balcerowicz, the architect of Poland’s “shock therapy” market economy reforms, is no longer portrayed as a bogeyman. The slogan “Balcerowicz must go,” once brandished by those dissatisfied with the outcome of his tough reforms, has been consigned to the history books. Poland is now a member of NATO and the European Union. It has been noting healthy economic growth for years and weathering domestic and international crises largely unscathed. Twenty-five years ago, all this seemed a pipe dream.

Successive governments, whether right- or left-wing, stayed on the course set by Mazowiecki and his people, although they often questioned the quality of the reforms and the way in which they were carried out. In retrospect, it must be conceded that Mazowiecki’s government determined the overall course that Poland followed successfully over the next decades.
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