Authors of Polish democracy see its good, bad side
By MONIKA SCISLOWSKA | The Associated Press | Published: June 2, 2014
WARSAW, Poland — One was an electrician proud of his working class roots. The other an intellectual who writes on the nature of freedom. A study in contrast, Lech Walesa and Adam Michnik were nonetheless the two heroes of Poland's democracy movement. And a quarter century after a historic election that brought freedom to their nation, they share a sense of wonder at the "miracle" of democracy — and some disappointment at today's Poland.
As Poland prepares to mark the 25th anniversary of communist Poland's first partly free election, which set off a democratic chain reaction across eastern Europe that culminated in the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, Walesa and Michnik relived triumphs and rued missed opportunities in interviews with The Associated Press.
"If someone told me 30 years ago that I would live to see a democratic Poland, independent, with strong economic growth, with no censorship, with open borders, a Poland where human rights are respected, where I can read what I want, write what I want and travel where I want," Michnik said, "I would have said that it's some kind of a miracle."
For Nobel peace laureate Walesa, the greatest wonder is how Poland saw the departure of the Red Army under his presidency, after decades of domination. He rejoices at Poland's hard-won democracy, but wishes he had achieved more: a more effective state, equal opportunity and welfare for all, greater success in bringing communists to account.
"When I see how much we have spoiled, how careless we were, how much injustice we have caused, then I am displeased," said Walesa.
Walesa's heroic journey began after he was fired from the Gdansk shipyard for worker rights activism. He joined his former co-workers' strike in August 1980 and soon became their charismatic leader — founding the Solidarity free trade union that grew into a nationwide freedom movement. The regime tried to crush it, with leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski imposing martial law in 1981. But Solidarity soldiered on in the face of crushing odds, buoyed by the support of Polish Pope John Paul II.
In 1988 a new round of strikes broke out that pushed the communist authorities to sit down with Solidarity. The talks resulted in the communist regime legalizing Solidarity and an agreement to hold the June 4, 1989 elections. The deal created a new chamber of parliament, the Senate, and opened all of its 100 seats to free voting, while opening one-third of the seats in the more important lower house.
The results were a political earthquake: Solidarity won 99 of the 100 Senate seats and all contestable 161 seats in the lower house. The march to full democracy became unstoppable and by the end of the following year Walesa was president.
Today, Walesa sees too many social inequalities in Poland and expresses frustration at faction-riven politics that keeps talented young people out of power.
"The man who has got a job, a good job, is very happy and is applauding Walesa. But the man who worked in a shipyard that went bankrupt is not pleased at all and swears at Walesa," he said. "One is right and the other one is right, too."
He blames himself for some of Poland's troubles.
"The mistake that I made, damn it, was handing victory to bureaucrats and politicians. And they do things their own way," he said. "This is not the Poland that we fought for."
Michnik was the brains behind Solidarity and helped plot out Poland's peaceful transition to democracy. From his student years in the 1960s, he was persecuted by the communist regime for dissident activity. He spent five years in prison, suffering severe beatings.
For Michnik, Poland's greatest weakness today is the inefficient justice system, where trials get bogged down in red tape, and in the disorganized state-run health care, where patients can wait for years to see a specialist.
Despite such problems and 11 percent unemployment, Michnik says the social cost of Poland's democratic transition has been "very low."
"Have you ever seen such a huge historical change without social costs? Our costs were exceptionally low: no gallows, no civil war, no barricades."
While lamenting difficulties, Michnik is also quick to tick off Poland's triumphs.
"The fact that we are in the EU, that we can travel in Europe without visas, that the borders are open ... builds a new collective awareness among young Poles," Michnik said. "For my generation, a trip abroad was a major undertaking. My son just buys tickets to Madrid, to London, and goes wherever he wants.
"Poland is a completely different country," he said.