Poland's anniversary of democracy

WARSAW — The fastest way to get Poles riled up on June 4 would be to mention the approaching anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall — because Poland sees its own role in bringing down European communism as paramount.

“They shouldn’t be ridiculous with that wall,” explodes Lech Walesa, the legendary leader of the Solidarity labor union and Poland’s president from 1990-1995.

Poland claims with some validity that it was first to undermine Communist rule.

First, through the Solidarity union formed during the strikes of 1980, which quickly became a movement of national liberation before the introduction of martial law in 1981. Although Solidarity was driven underground, it succeeded in shaking communism to the core by destroying the myth that the Communist Party represented the working classes.

Led by Walesa, Solidarity refused to cut a deal with the authorities through the grim 1980s, until another round of strikes so weakened the Communists that they were forced to open negotiations with the opposition in the spring of 1989.

The party reluctantly agreed to allow for partly free elections on June 4, 1989. The idea was that the Communists would still get to keep a lock on 65 percent of the seats in parliament, while allowing the opposition to vent a bit of steam by competing for the rest. The apparatchiks ruling the country since 1944 hoped to be able to co-opt part of the opposition to spread the blame for the country’s obvious economic collapse and to gain some social support for the drastic steps needed to repair it.

On the day of the election, Walesa thought that the opposition would win about two-thirds of the seats allotted to it, but that Communists would continue to rule the country for the foreseeable future. Overconfident party members were even considering the possibility that candidates linked with Solidarity wouldn’t win a single seat.

Instead, given their first chance in five decades to express what they thought of the Communists, voters trounced the party, which didn’t win a single seat in the first round and won only one in the second.

By August, Poland had formed its first non-Communist government since the war, giving the tottering Soviet empire a firm, although not final, kick.

“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