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Walesa watches history pass him by

The Polish ex-president and Solidarity leader longs for action.

Poland's former president Lech Walesa on June 4, 2009, the 20th anniversary of Poland's first free parliamentary election that signaled the end of communist rule. (Peter Andrews/Reuters)

GDANSK — Lech Walesa lived through several moments similar to what Iranian demonstrators are now witnessing: when the forces of change and revolution are poised against the forces of power and the gun, and the outcome is very uncertain.

Having led a successful revolution, which ended communist rule in 1989 and saw him elected for a five-year term as Poland’s president, the former leader of the Solidarity labor union exudes dissatisfaction at being on the sidelines and no longer having any impact on the course of events. (Read more about organizing protests before modern telecommunications.)

“Of course more things could have been done more cleverly and always more quickly,” he said of Poland’s transformation. “One could have a lot of wishes after the fact.”

Now, he refuses to let go of the limelight.

While Mikhail Gorbachev runs a foundation and has become an advertising icon, and Nelson Mandela has become a grandfatherly figure to South Africa, Walesa, 65, still toys with the idea of returning to active politics. Despite opinion poll numbers that show his potential support in the single digits, he never rules out the possibility of another run at high office.

Keeping his hand in means that Walesa is rarely out of the news in Poland.

Over the last year he has been involved in disputes with Lech Kaczynski, Poland’s president, with the government of Donald Tusk, the prime minister and his erstwhile ally, and with historians he accuses of trying to besmirch his reputation. He even took controversial stands during the recent elections to the European parliament.

“There is something of the warrior in me,” he said, sitting in his office in the heart of the historic city of Gdansk, only about a mile from the shipyard where he led the 1980 strikes that shook communism to the core. “I have a vision, and I know I’m right.”

The stubbornness and vision was what helped take a simple man born in poverty during World War II and turn him into an anti-communist agitator and leader. Walesa began his run-ins with the communist authorities in the 1970s, when worker unrest along the Baltic coast was fiercely put down by the authorities.

The lesson from that strike was that protestors should not take to the streets, where the police and army could gun them down, and that they should not negotiate separately with the authorities. In 1980, when strikes broke out at the Gdansk shipyard, followed by other industrial plants, leaders, including Walesa, occupied factories and refused to cut separate deals with the communists.

Following the declaration of martial law in 1981, Walesa became the leading figure of Polish resistance, refusing to buckle to communist blandishments until the regime, weakened by yet another wave of strikes in 1988, was forced to come to the negotiating table.