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Rewolucja: 20 Years Later

By Ellen C. Bryson, Matthew H. Ghazarian, and Eugene Kim, Nones

On this day two decades ago, Polish patriots took on the world’s largest army and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, eventually toppling the Communist regime in Warsaw. They achieved this feat not through violent revolution, but through a series of negotiations that became famous as the Round Table talks. The defeat of Communism in Poland—which was soon followed by its total collapse in Eastern Europe and, in 1991, the Soviet Union itself—should properly be regarded as one of the greatest triumphs in European history.

The collapse of Communism in Poland was precipitated by both economic crisis and political ferment. By 1988, Poland’s command economy, overwhelmed by $6 billion of foreign debt and paralyzed by governmental incompetence, was in serious decline. Workers’ complaints over rising prices precipitated strikes and protests in 1970, 1976, 1980, and 1988. In July, a standoff between miners and the government saw the re-emergence of Solidarity, an illegal trade union.

Solidarity, led by the charismatic electrician Lech Walesa, had gained international sympathy after the 1980 shipyard strikes in Gdansk. It would eventually gain huge popular support; 1.5 million Poles would claim membership in April 1989. However, the Communist regime felt threatened by the union and responded with force. In 1981, Wojciech Jaruzelski, the secretary of the Polish Communist Party, declared martial law, criminalized Solidarity, and imprisoned much of its leadership. For two years, Poland suffered under military rule.

By the end of the decade, however, the situation had become all but untenable for the autocratic government in Warsaw. As complete economic chaos threatened to overwhelm Poland, the Jaruzelski clique was forced to moderate its views toward Solidarity. In September 1988, Minister of Interior Czeslaw Kiszczak had approached Walesa and made the unprecedented move of inviting Solidarity to political talks intended to fix the country’s worsening political and economic situation.

From February to April of 1989, the Communist leadership met with the leaders of Solidarity in what became known as the Round Table talks, which resulted in an agreement to hold semi-free elections that summer. The results of these elections favored Solidarity’s candidates even more than its own leaders had expected; of the available seats, Solidarity won nearly every single contest. To many observers, it seemed as though Poland would move rapidly toward capitalism and democracy.

Turning Poland into a market economy, however, was a more complex and painful process than anyone could have imagined. In the early 1990s, the Polish government attempted to use “shock therapy” programs—championed by Jeffrey Sachs and other Western experts—to jumpstart the economy. This resulted in high inflation and unemployment for years. The Polish economy eventually revived, but the intervening years were painful for most of the country. Solidarity, which had championed shock therapy, soon paid the political price for backing the unpopular economic platform.

Led by Walesa, Solidarity emerged from the overthrow of Communism popularly viewed as the savior of the Polish nation but proved to be much less effective as a governing party. Just four years after the Round Table talks, the once-dominant coalition led by Solidarity had fragmented and lost power to its Social Democratic opposition, some of whom had served in the Communist government. This was not due simply to the economic climate; in the first truly free elections, the movement split violently when Walesa ran for president against Tadeusz Mazowiecki, another Solidarity politician who was then prime minister.

As a result, the political figures that had defeated Communism were not able to bring Poland into the greater fold of the European community. Instead, it took a new generation of political leadership to accomplish the unthinkable: turning a mismanaged and unproductive command economy into a functioning and streamlined market system. Yet all this hard work paid off in the end; on May 1, 2004, Poland and seven other formerly Communist countries in Central Europe joined the European Union.

The 20-year anniversary of the Round Table talks serves as cause for reflection on the events of the past two decades in Poland and the Central European region as a whole. Even with the advantage of historical hindsight, the revolution of 1989 is just as impressive—if not more so—than it was 20 years ago. Despite the numerous challenges that Poland has faced in the past two decades, it has undergone an amazing transition. Since 1989, it has joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, earned full membership in the European Union, and built a successful democracy. To that end, we salute Poland and join with its people in the twentieth anniversary celebration of the 1989 talks.

Ellen C. Bryson ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Cabot House. Matthew H. Ghazarian ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government concentrator in Kirkland House. Eugene Kim ’10, a Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Kirkland House.

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