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Foundering Phoenix: Solidarity’s Turbulent Rise to Power

The path of Solidarity from dissident group to governance in the 1980s was far from smooth. Founded on September 17, 1980 at the Gdansk Shipyard, Solidarity (Solidarność) was the Soviet bloc’s first independent trade union. Solidarity’s ascent was of great symbolic importance, marking the end of five decades of Communist rule in Poland. Its leader, Lech Walesa, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.

Solidarity’s ranks had risen to over 9 million when the Communist regime outlawed the union, imprisoning the movement’s leaders and harassing its members. It was not until 1989 that the group was allowed to reorganize with the establishment of the Round Table Agreement, at which point Solidarity began to run candidates in the parliamentary elections. Walesa would eventually become the first freely elected President of Poland in 63 years; he governed from 1990-1995.

With the dissolution of a common Communist threat, the coalition of workers, intellectuals, and clergy that constituted the movement began to disintegrate. Combined with tough economic times caused by the transition from a statist to a market economy, Solidarity began to lose much of the popularity it held in the early 1980s.

Solidarity’s transition from labor union to political party is chronicled by three U.S. diplomats posted in Warsaw at the time: Economic Office Howard Lange, Political Officer Michael Anderson, and Ambassador Thomas Simons, Jr. Charles Stuart Kennedy conducted these interviews between 2000 and 2005.

See these links to read more about Communism and Poland.

High Noon: Running the bad guys out of town

Howard Lange, Economic Officer, Warsaw, 1986-1986

LANGE: You may recall that in 1988…the Roundtable Discussions involving Solidarity and the government/[Communist] Party had begun. Solidarity just wore the Party down, and of course they were creating objective problems with waves of strikes and so forth. Ultimately, the authorities agreed to an election. It was quite a dramatic experience.…

On the 4th of June, 1989…the elections were held. I have a great poster – a near life size figure of Gary Cooper in “High Noon” (see above) In Polish, it said simply, “High Noon, June 4,” which Solidarity and its friends clearly saw as the time for them to make their move and run the bad guys out of town.

I walked around the city during Election Day, visiting polling places, and they were very active. Solidarity had set up tables outside polling places everywhere.

The Communist Party rank-and-file had by that time essentially given up the ghost. They were not doing any campaigning outside the polls. Their version of campaigning was to take bundles of leaflets — and of course their printing presses were still churning stuff out — load them in cars and dump them out in the street, sometimes still bundled together, as they drove around the city. They made no attempt to convince people face to face.

That was very tangible evidence of the beginning of the end of the Communist era, and it was exciting!

“I always thought of Solidarity as the germ cell for the future civic society of Poland”

Michael Anderson, Political Officer, Warsaw, 1990-1993

ANDERSON: There certainly was a lot of change, and the change was going on as we got there. You could see it happening before your eyes. The consumer revolution had struck, which is the way I see it. It had ceased to be a political issue and was more of an economic issue at this point.

It was 1989 and the [Solidarity Prime Minister Tadeusz] Mazowiecki government had come in. They had some kind of Communist majority, a fake majority in the parliament there, Sejm, as it is called. Then that had been swept away in another election.

They had set up this attempt to have a controlled democracy with a controlled election, so it would guarantee that the Communists would still retain hold over at least one House of Parliament. In any case, by the time I got [to Warsaw] in the summer of 1990, the Communists had been pushed out of power altogether, except that General Wojciech Jaruzelski remained as President a while longer…

There had been a number of new parties formed, when the Sejm, the Polish parliament, was elected on a free basis…There were maybe 20 different parties. Then the Solidarity Coalition sort of started to split up. I always thought of Solidarity as the germ cell for the future civic or free society of Poland. Of course it included everything from right-wing kind of neo-liberal-type thinkers all the way over to socialists… There was no coherence to it.

All it had in its coherence was they were all anti-Communist. They all wanted to get rid of that. Once that regime was gone, then you saw this germ cell sort of split up into all these different organs, all these different pieces….

One was the parti przyacziu piwa, the “beer lover’s party” it was called (seen at right). They actually elected quite a few people to parliament. They were campaigning on the idea that we need to replace vodka consumption with beer.

It’s a much more healthy drink. It’s going to have much less toxic effect. That was partly a joke but partly it was also serious. I think there was a previous attempt to do this down in Czechoslovakia. That’s kind of where they got the idea.

These were all guys who had been — I don’t know where a lot of them came from — out of academia, some of them maybe had been sort of trade union types, but even the trade unions were sort of, free trade unions were a new idea. They were inexperienced. There were an awful lot of personality clashes. People were trying to establish a party really of one it seemed like a lot of times.

So you had many, many different rivalries going on, former Solidarity types. There was a pair of twin brothers there — the Kaczynski brothers (seen below). They were the head of the Centrum, it was called. They called their party the “center party,” which it really wasn’t, but it was a successor to Solidarity.

Solidarity had its own issues. It couldn’t make up its mind whether it was a trade union or a political movement or what it was. It had sort of one foot in and one foot out of the political arena, identifying or endorsing various candidates.

You had a lot of lawyers, people who had come out of the liberal professions; I would say mainly lawyers, but some teachers and professors who got into the thing without too clear a notion as to what their program was but sort of advancing their own particular interests.

I used to cover the parliament quite a bit. We’d go over because we were just a few steps away from the parliament house. There were constant, seem to be, crises of government because the government could not maintain any kind of a parliamentary majority. They kept splintering. So that was an issue.

There was another guy who came in there who was kind of a hardliner….Lesczek Mocuzulski was this one guy; [his party] was called the KPN…[which] was almost a proto-fascist kind of group. We watched him.

Then he was replaced by an American Pole who came over there, a guy named Tyminski. He was a complete and utter nutcase but he got a lot of votes too. They had elections there. I think he was running against Walesa for president or something.

“The movement went on sort of without him”

When Walesa decided to run for president, that was a big issue, whether he should do that or not, because he had been kind of the “hero of the resistance” to the Communists, but a lot of people didn’t think of him as being presidential material. He wasn’t distinguished enough. Well, that was just a challenge to him to sort of say, well darn, I can be president, and of course he did get elected president. He did a credible job, I guess.

What happened, of course, is that the movement went on sort of without him. Once you’re president, it was more of a figurehead position, although he tried to make it more of a power spot. Things kind of went on without him and he resented that and there was just a lot of bad feeling between him and the government. He was trying to run things out of the Belvedere Palace and the government of course had its own program.

So you just had the sense that there was no good political structure there, no parties that were really worth the name. Of course no clear idea of a government program that was agreed upon and no constitutional coherence between the role of the president and that of the prime minister….

Before, under the communists, the presidential office had always been a kind of figurehead one…There was a period, if you will, of incoherence there in terms of where the power lay and how it was to be exercised and where we’re going.

People of course realized that and I think pretty soon they started to turn back towards the old Communists or the former Communists….

“The main support of the new non-Communist government were the people who were most likely to suffer”

Thomas Simons, Jr., Ambassador, Warsaw, 1990-1993

SIMONS: By the time I was gearing up to go there, Poland had a Solidarity government, which was worked out very much with the help of my predecessor, John Davis, who had been first Chargé and then Ambassador all through the ‘80s; a wonderful diplomat. He had actually been instrumental…because he was in the thick of the negotiations that lead to the Solidarity government in the summer of ’89….

He was there through the first year in which they put in place the most radical economic reform program in post-Communist Eastern Europe, not to speak of the Soviet Union (which was still the Soviet Union).

It was a reform program that was worked out with American advice …under the aegis of the man who became the Finance Minister although he wasn’t then, Leszek Balcerowicz, (seen at right) an economist who had U.S. training too. These were people who understood the market system, and they had strong views of what reform should consist of, and they had the support of the Solidarity movement.

Now the infantry of the Solidarity movement was in Poland’s large factories, large monopoly factories, so you weren’t going to get much privatization of those factories early on. So they had to develop a program that took that into account, and they put that program in place by December of 1989.

We had put together a fund of a billion dollars — $200 million was ours and we got $800 million from other contributors — to stabilize their currency and to allow a certain convertibility of their currency, and people were putting in place assistance programs to help out.

It was tough because you had immediate huge inflation, 600 percent inflation, and a tattering of the social safety net, which was really quite dangerous and doubly so because the main support of the new non-Communist government were the people who were most likely to suffer from it, the workers in these big factories. So, [it was] a parlous situation.

Then too, the Solidarity leadership to which John Davis was so close had been this amazing coalition, almost miraculous in East European terms, of workers and intellectuals: they were the kinds of people that the Communist governments almost everywhere else succeeded in keeping apart, but they came together in Poland, and that was the secret of the Polish success.

But now this started to come apart, and Lech Walesa who led the whole movement, who was head of the whole movement, was a worker, and they had made the mistake in forming the new government in the summer of 1989 of leaving him up in Gdansk, his home base in Gdansk, where he had come out of the shipyard there to lead the movement.

So you had a government that was mainly composed of Solidarity intellectuals, and Walesa was resentful that he had no role, and he was a person who was worried, as the U.S. government was worried, as John Davis was worried in retrospect in reading his reporting, that you were going to get a backlash of Communists who were still very strong in the “power agencies,” the military and the police, in the Interior Ministry.

Walesa was very sensitive to that, and I think he was afraid that the Solidarity government was going to alienate its worker base and open the way for that kind of backlash.

So he decided to run for President, and to run for President against the Solidarity intellectual who had led the first government, Mazowiecki.

Poland’s presidential election of 1990:  “It is going to be confused, it’s going to be up and down, but that’s democracy.”

It was in the summer of 1990. I got there in September of 1990. John, my predecessor who had been so close to the Solidarity movement, left very depressed, very depressed at the breakup of the movement that Walesa was provoking. Walesa called it “war at the top:” “I am going to declare war at the top.” John was afraid that splitting the movement was going to seriously weaken it, was going to make it less effective in pursing this reform program, was going to open the way to divisions….

One of the things when the split came that we started hearing from intellectuals was that [Walesa] didn’t speak very good Polish, which was true. You started to get that old contempt of the intelligentsias in that part of the world for workers and simple people.

I think the first long cable that I wrote back to Washington … basically said “Get ready for a roller coaster ride. It is going to be confused, it’s going to be up and down, and it’s going to have a lot of very high decibels. There’s going to be a lot of dissension; but that’s democracy. We wanted democracy, and we’re going to get democracy….”

You still had a Communist Minister of Finance; you had a new Minister of the Interior who was Solidarity, but Communists still played a role there and in the military. It really was a power-sharing arrangement, and the question was how to get a gentle transition to an all-Solidarity government, and that was what the presidential election late in 1990 was going to do.

I wrote that cable to kind of calm Washington down, to prepare them for really a messier transition than they had hoped for, to encourage people watching in Washington to put up with some of this confusion, the gay profusion of democracy, and I told them to calm down and not to be frightened; that attitude sort of held.