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The Polish Round Table. A bird’s-eye view

Today, the 1989 Round Table is still a topic of an important discussion in Poland, one that in the last years has become more intense than before. Many participants of the discussion are still active in Polish political life, including former presidents and prime ministers. A majority of them stress the positive aspects of the negotiations. Yet the Round Table has always had fierce critics.

The Polish Round Table negotiations, which started in February 1989, were one of those events whose meaning was not clear from the very beginning. In a way, we can compare this moment of Polish history to Julius Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon in 49 BC, after he ignored the order of the senators who were well aware of his high ambitions and wanted to keep him away from Rome. It marked the beginning of the end of the Roman republic, while from that moment on, the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” refers to a decision, or a historical event, which brings about irreversible consequences.

May 2, 2019 - Paulina Codogni - History and MemoryIssue 3-4 2019Magazine

May 1st 1989, Gdynia campaign rally for candidates of the Solidarność trade unity running for parliament in the first semi-free elections after the Round Table discussions. Photo: Leonard Szmaglik / European Solidarity Centre Collection

This article was published in issue 3-4/2019 of New Eastern Europe. Subscribe today and get full access to New Eastern Europe.

Two sides

When the representatives of the Polish democratic opposition and the government coalition sat together for negotiations in February 1989, their goal was to prepare a plan for a transition which would allow Poland to emerge from the deepening economic crisis. They had different motives to join the negotiations. The opposition team (Solidarity) wanted to re-legalise at the lowest possible price for the Solidarność trade union. Its leader, Lech Wałęsa, was not participating in the discussions, but was monitoring the negotiations. The authorities, led by the Chairman of the Council of State, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, wanted to move the burden of the government to the opposition. In other words, they wanted to introduce necessary painful changes to neutralise the opposition’s influence in Polish society. The authorities were also aware that they could no longer keep the society engaged as people were demotivated by meaningless elections and could now refuse to go and vote.

In that case, how was it possible that representatives of these two sides which, until then, could not engage in dialogue, decided to start negotiations? There are many factors explaining this decision, but the economic crisis was undoubtedly a large element. Secondly, an important role was the respect each side and the Polish society had for the Catholic Church whose representatives were continuously calling for dialogue. However, external factors also played an important role, especially the position of the US President Ronald Reagan, and Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union, as well as the standing of Pope John Paul II who provided Poles with strong spiritual support.

Both sides realised that undertaking negotiations was necessary because of the strikes that had erupted in 1988. Their first wave took place in the spring, lasting from April until May 1988, while the second – much longer – one happened between August and September that year. Interestingly, the opposition and the authorities came to a completely different, even contradictory, conclusion. For the leaders of Solidarity, the strikes were not a threat to the system. Indeed, very few unionists participated in them, and the chances of greater support in the factories were small. The authorities, on the other hand, saw the workers’ protest as a beginning of a larger wave, which could turn into a much significant and real threat. They were also afraid that the “old” opposition leaders, whom they saw as predictable, could have been removed from the decision-making process. This interpretation meant that the 1988 strikes were led by relatively young people who did not have any direct experience of Solidarity in 1980.

Talks about talks

The direct effect of the second wave of 1988 strikes was a meeting between the leader of the Solidarność trade union, Lech Wałęsa, and the prime minister, General Czesław Kiszczak. It was during this meeting when the agreement on starting the negotiations was made. These “talks about talks” started in early September 1988 and lasted until January 1989. They took place during an extremely crucial, although often underestimated, period. It was then – before the start of the Round Table negotiations – when the decision was actually made to re-legalise Solidarność at the price of the opposition’s participation in parliamentary elections. Thus, the official talks, which started in February, were preceded by a few high-level meetings between Wałęsa and Kiszczak, as well as a few other lower-ranking officials. These talks illustrated that, on both sides, there was a sense of a common goal and trust, although some tensions which led to a serious impasses took place, lasting until the very last moment.

The Round Table talks started on February 6th 1989 and lasted for two months until April 5th 1989. Almost 600 people participated in them. There were three main thematic groups, also known as small tables (stoliki). This included a table negotiating the political reform, a table negotiating re-legalisation of Solidarność trade union, and a table discussing economic and social matters. In addition, negotiations were taking place at ten sub-tables (podstoliki). These talks included leaders of the opposition and the communist party. However, they also involved representatives of government and state institutions, as well as organisations like the associations of farmers, teachers, students, scouts, and academics. There were also opposition groups representing illegal associations of students, farmers and scouts. During these two months, the participants discussed many fundamental matters regarding Polish politics and economy, but also some more specific issues, such as the need for better ways of delivering drugs and medicine to rural areas, improvement in health and safety conditions for miners, and the safe transportation of toxic waste through Poland. Significantly, security and foreign policy were not discussed at all.

Neither the government coalition nor the opposition were prepared for the difficult and long confrontations they were about to face. The experience of Marshal Law, which was introduced in Poland in December 1981, hung heavy for the opposition, and that is why they had little faith that the talks would produce anything substantial. Thus in the early phases of the negotiations, the leaders of Solidarity perceived elections not as a means, but a price to be paid for the re-legalisation of the trade union. This thinking was based on the conviction that it was the free and independent trade unions, not the opposition’s presence in parliament, which would lead to real change in Poland.

After the difficult negotiations, the leaders of the communist party agreed to hold free elections in the Polish Senate and partially free elections in the parliament’s lower house – the Sejm. The agreement allowed for only 35 per cent of Sejm mandates to be obtained through competitive campaigns, while the rest were kept for members of the ruling coalition. The opposition came to the realisation that elections were not only a price for the re-legalisation of Solidarity, but a huge opportunity. In the end, both sides agreed on two election rounds. If none of the candidates managed to get 50 per cent or more in the first round, the second round would see two candidates with the highest score competing against each other. This formula, which was agreed on during the negotiations, was a combination of election rules known in both democratic and authoritarian regimes.

Both sides also agreed that subsequent elections would be completely free and that there would be a four-year transition period – something which they – nonetheless – understood in very different ways. The ruling coalition needed this time to reinforce its power through the implementation – with the opposition’s help – of socially painful and unpopular, but unavoidable, economic reforms. The opposition, in turn, needed time to organise candidates and get prepared for the fully democratic elections, planned for 1993.  

The moment of truth

From today’s perspective, it is difficult to understand why in 1989 the Polish communist authorities were certain they would win in free and competitive elections. One of the possible explanations could be that the communists were confident of their experience and certain that the opposition would not have enough time to get adequately prepared. The first round of elections was planned for early June 1989, only two months after the official signing of the agreement of the Round Table, which took place on April 5th that year.

June 4th 1989 became the moment of truth. All 261 Solidarity candidates, with the exception of eight, passed the 50 per cent threshold and thus received the necessary number of votes to take over both chambers of parliament. Those who did not get that number of votes went on to the second round. All Solidarity candidates, except one, were elected into parliament. The coalition side had a very different outcome. Only three of its candidates managed to achieve 50 per cent in the first round. Another disaster the communist party faced was the failure of the so-called national list, which had the names of the coalition’s 35 main leaders. Only two of them managed to pass the 50 per cent threshold, and since no second round was foreseen, it meant they could not get into the parliament.

The unexpected results of the June elections completely changed the Polish political landscape. In just a few months the agreements that were established during the Round Table were outdated and the concept of the “transition period”, which assumed limited participation of the opposition in executive power, lost its validity. Even with Jaruzelski elected to the newly established office of president, the communist party faced serious obstacles while forming a government. Thus after Kiszczak’s failure in establishing a new cabinet of ministers, the opposition got a realistic chance to take part in government. The mission to form a government was then assigned to Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who asked members of the opposition and the communists to co-operate. On September 12th 1989, the composition of the new government was officially approved by parliament. Mazowiecki became the first non-communist prime minister, since the end of the Second World War, in the whole Eastern European bloc.

One gate

The outcomes of the Round Table were a surprise for both sides, while the dynamics of future events turned out to be completely different than planned. The course of events can probably be best explained by the psychology of the negotiations. Clearly, the months-long talks, which took place both before and during the official negotiations, allowed some barriers to be overcome. As a result, both sides started treating each other more as partners than enemies. Both the communists and the opposition, during the talks, stressed the need for establishing partnership. One of the participants on the authorities’ side, Tadeusz Mrzygłód, put it this way: “When I came here I thought it would be a game where we will be shooting at two different gates, one gate will be the one of the authorities, while the other one will be the social and unionist gate. It turns out that we are all shooting at one gate.” Yet it would be a mistake to think that the situation was easy for the opposition. The words of Władysław Frasyniuk, who during a meeting with Tadeusz Zakrzewski (a journalist with state-owned media), illustrates the attitude then: “I was jailed for a few years; I was watching you and your colleagues programmes and was dreaming that the moment will come when we will be able to spit straight into your face. Unfortunately, the situation in the country is such that I cannot do that.”

Today, the Round Table is still a topic of important discussion, one that in the last number of years has become more intense than ever. Many participants of the Round Table discussions are still active in Polish political life, including former presidents and prime ministers. The majority of them stress the positive aspects of the negotiations. Their general way of thinking is well expressed by the words of the late Bronisław Geremek who said: “We had a vision of a national tragedy. We knew that the decomposition of the economy was progressing very fast and that if we did not quickly find some kind of an arrangement, alliance or agreement, we could wake up in Poland’s ruins. Had we treated Poland as an animal farm, it would have of course been better to wait until the managers finally prove their inefficiency, take it to a complete ruin, and then we could take over all power. However, we were not thinking about an animal farm, but our country.”

Criticism

Despite all that has happened, the Round Table negotiations have always had its critics. Historians are constantly faced with their “black legend”, which argues that the talks were participated by “red” and “pink” commies, meaning the acting and former members of the communist party. This argument states that they joined the talks in order to gain access to the state enterprise and funds. Supporters of this theory believe that the Round Table was only a show organised for the people, while the opposition and the communists signed a secret protocol. Another line of criticism argues that the opposition should not have engaged in any negotiations with the communist generals, who were responsible for the earlier persecutions of the regime’s opponents. Critics who have invoked this line of argument have also stressed that allowing the opposition to participate in the negotiations meant that the authorities were weak. Negotiations with the opposition, in this way, only served to prolong the reign of the communist party. In truth, even Wałęsa agreed that the Round Table made the subsequent lustration process difficult.

Finally, some of the criticisms also have a symbolic dimension. Because of the negotiations, there was no “Storming of the Bastille” nor any symbolic moment of change. The Polish people had no chance to experience a sense of catharsis or new order. The logic of the Round Table consisted of something else. It is probably best expressed by the words of the late Kazimierz Dziewanowski, a witness to the events, who said:

“The Round Table was an unprecedented event in the [socialist] bloc of states. It took place after decades during which we were seeing changes in various pieces of furniture, starting with the court benches [where oftentimes falsely accused would sit]… to podiums and church pulpits. And since [a round table] is such an unprecedented piece of furniture, its idea and way of setting up could not be flawless. I think that this piece of furniture raised too many expectations in the beginning and was too poorly prepared. It was the first such table where nobody was pounding it with their fist but where arguments, proposals and ideas were presented – it became a witness to many elaborated and beautifully formulated, but very general, declarations, while later it was burdened by a huge pile of details … I am perfectly aware that there will be voices that will argue that many issues were missed, ignored and forgotten. All this is true, but it is also clear that, after over 40 years of silence, you cannot, in just a few weeks, talk over every matter and solve all important problems of a medium-sized European country.”

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Paulina Codogni is an assistant professor in the department of Central and Eastern Europe at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Science and vice-rector for international co-operation at Collegium Civitas (Warsaw). She specialises in non-violence protests and change and is an author of a book Okrągły Stół, czyli polski Rubikon (Round Table, or a Polish Rubicon) published in 2009.

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