Connect to share and comment

Poland's anniversary of democracy

It's been 20 years since Solidarity trounced the Communist Party in a popular election, and Poland wants it remembered.

“Over the first months we were walking on very thin ice,” says Adam Michnik, a leading dissident and founder of the Gazeta Wyborcza, a newspaper created to give voice to the opposition before the 1989 elections and now the country’s largest serious daily. “The party still held the police and the army. We were surrounded by Communist countries and Russian soldiers were still based in Poland.”

The Polish dash for freedom proved to be the catalyst needed to shake the surrounding Soviet satellites. That summer saw thousands of East Germans run for the west through Hungary and Czechoslovakia, while an initially small protest movement in East Germany gained steam.

On Nov. 9 the Berlin Wall was breached by thousands of euphoric Germans. The event was broadcast live around the world, and quickly became the symbolic marker of the end of Communism in Europe, much to the irritation of Poles, who felt they were being given short shrift by the world’s media.

Since then Poland has tried to make June 4 a key international anniversary, without success, mainly because round-table negotiations followed by peaceful elections are a lot less visually grabbing than the dramatic scenes in Berlin.

Poland has also not helped its commemorative cause by the nasty fighting that has broken out over this year’s 20th anniversary. Militant unions representing shipyard workers, who may lose their jobs under a planned restructuring, have threatened to disrupt ceremonies planned for Gdansk outside the gates of the shipyard where Solidarity was born.

Donald Tusk, the prime minister, ended up moving part of the celebrations to the southern city of Krakow, while his rival, President Lech Kaczynski, promised to be at the shipyard with the workers.

Rubbing salt in the wound, the European Commission recently published an online video in which Poland got short shrift for its contributions to ending communism, provoking local outrage.

“The choice of scenes and materials lead to the conclusion that the film shows the last 20 years only through the perspective of East Germany,” complained Jan Tombinski, Poland’s EU ambassador.

The commission quickly amended the video, but Poland’s task of changing the world’s perception about 1989 seems out of reach.

More on communism and Eastern Europe:

Poland is the last East European country to resolve claims from property seized by the Communists.

Barricading Radio Free Europe

Prague, a city still changing

Pedaling the Iron Curtain