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Behind Poland’s Success

October 28, 2013 - Grzegorz Nurek - Books and Reviews



Rok 1989 i lata następne (1989 and the Following Years). By: Tadeusz Mazowiecki. Publisher: Wydawnictwo Prószyński i S-ka, Warsaw 2012.

Tadeusz Mazowiecki, now 86 years old, is one of the best known and most respected politicians in Poland. Despite his advanced age, Mazowiecki is still very politically active: he advises the current president of Poland, Bronisław Komorowski, participates in many conferences and meetings, both in Poland and abroad, and has recently published his memoir titled Rok 1989 i lata następne (1989 and the Following Years).

In 1989, Poland regained its independence after many years of communist rule and quickly began building a new democratic political system. The Solidarity (Solidarność) movement, led by Lech Wałęsa, facilitated the first free elections and the first non-communist prime minister: Tadeusz Mazowiecki. During his first address to the Polish parliament after the creation of the government 1989, Mazowiecki lost consciousness. But after a short break and some fresh air, he returned to the assembly and jokingly said that the state of his own health reflects the state of the Polish economy. Mazowiecki had been preparing his address for the entire night, and despite having smoked two packets of cigarettes and drunk several cups of coffee, he was quite tired and had the right to faint. But the joke he made was quite relevant to the situation: from his predecessors he inherited an empty coffer, empty shops, massive inflation, a huge debt, and a socialist-style, ineffective economy. Many Poles regret the fact that Mazowiecki and his government only ruled for 16 months, understanding that with respect to such a short period of time and the number of difficult tasks it had to face, Mazowiecki's government deserves the highest recognition. The memoir fully reflects the dramaturgy of politics in such difficult times.

From the very beginning Mazowiecki knew how to choose the right people. It was Mazowiecki who convinced the economist Leszek Balcerowicz to become finance minister, despite the fact that Balcerowicz was planning to move to the United Kingdom to start an academic scholarship and wasn't interested in getting involved in politics. Balcerowicz even rejected the request, arguing that he wasn't the right person for the job. But Mazowiecki’s persistence paid off. Today, it is hard to imagine what the Polish economy would look like had the courageous economic reforms initiated by Balcerowicz not taken place in the early 1990s. To his government, Mazowiecki appointed such people as long-time activist and oppositionist Jacek Kuroń, philosopher, academic lecturer and editor with the Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, Krzysztof Kozłowski, and acclaimed lawyer and specialist in international law, Krzysztof Skubiszewski.

Mazowiecki’s book is not only a collection of conversations with the prime minister, his speeches, documents issued, and letters written to important people. It is a kind of journal, and one that was never intentionally been written by Mazowiecki, but whose excerpts, chronologically presented, make a cohesive picture, providing witness to historical events.

It also shines light on the fact that while the destruction of the Berlin Wall did indeed symbolise the demise of Communism in Europe, many people don’t remember that the destruction of the order of Yalta had been initiated much earlier, namely with the creation of the Solidarity movement in Poland. It is estimated that at its peak, this movement, which was aimed at defending workers’ rights, included ten million Poles (compared to the two million members of the Communist party registered in 1989). Solidarity, the workers’ union, which became a massive, democratic movement showed that they had to be taken seriously, even by the most hard-core communists.

One of the most important tasks of the new government was faced with was, as Mazowiecki describes in his memoire, to eliminate the structures of the former secret police, conduct background checks on people employed in different agencies dealing with home affairs, and transform the militia into a police force. Needless to say, none of these reforms were very popular, especially among those who couldn't pass a test and could no longer serve in the army, the police or special forces (for example, because it became clear that they had done harm to Solidarity members or were fighting against the Church). Neither were these reforms popular among the part of the former opposition which was (and whose members are still today) upset that the process of de-communisation took place too late, and wasn't complete and courageous enough. All this, in 2001, allowed the former-communists to temporarily return to power.

Anybody who has ever had an occasion to meet the Solidarity’s legendary leader, Lech Wałęsa knows what an ambitious, proud and stubborn man he is. When two such people enter the political scene at the same time, one can only expect trouble. This was the case with Mazowiecki and Wałęsa. Mazowiecki became prime minister upon Wałęsa’s request, although from the very beginning, he ensured that his government would be immune to the influences inflicted by Solidarity’s activists. Wałęsa kept his word for six months and didn't disturb the government, until his personal ambition pushed him to run for the presidency. At the same time, he became braver and braver in his criticism of Mazowiecki’s government. This criticism was often populist in tone, and very unjust (it was based on the assumption that the reforms could have been organised in a quicker, smarter and more efficient way).

To find time for the reforms and “unveil” the works of the government, Prime Minister Mazowiecki decided to run against Wałęsa in the 1990 presidential elections. His failure in these elections, however, shows that he didn't adequately recognise the power of the symbol Wałęsa had become. Upon Wałęsa’s victory, Mazowiecki resigned.

Among the most important issues for Mazowiecki at the time was, which the book also illustrates, the withdrawal of Russian troops from Polish territory. The Soviet Army had been stationed in Poland and other Eastern Bloc countries for many years, and it is no secret that the leader of Romania at the time, Nicolae Ceauşescu, sent letters to Moscow and other leaders of the Warsaw Pact demanding Poland’s punishment due to the fact that it had dangerously “left the socialist path”. Thankfully, and primarily because of the work of the then leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, the wind of change was already blowing in Moscow, and the Soviet generals were focused on other things than military intervention in Poland. Mazowiecki’s goal was only reached by subsequent governments. The last contingent of Soviet Army soldiers left the territory of the Polish Republic in 1993.

For many people, both in Poland and abroad, Tadeusz Mazowiecki is a symbol of honesty and integrity. His life choices have always been led by Christian values. In 1958 he set up a Catholic monthly magazine called Więź, remaining its editor-in-chief until 1981, and was a close friend of Pope John II. Unsurprisingly, one of the most moving excerpts of the book are to be found in the chapters describing his service as a special United Nations emissary to Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 to 1995. In a moving letter to the Secretary General of the United Nations, in which he announced his resignation in a protest of the international community’s lack of response to the atrocities committed during the Bosnian War, Mazowiecki wrote: “When I was given this mandate for the first time in 1992, I took it, stating clearly that my goal would not only be to write reports but also help people. Setting up a safety zone was, from the beginning, one of the main recommendations of my reports. The decision of the London Conference, which accepted the fall of Srebrenica and wrote off, in advance, the fate of Žepa, are for me unacceptable. They have not created the conditions for defending all the zones … In Poland, we fought against a totalitarian regime, we looked with great hope to the future Europe. How could we believe in the Europe of tomorrow created by the children of those who are today being left behind?”

On another occasion, which is also mentioned in the book, in a manifesto written together with his granddaughter, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, half seriously, half-jokingly, postulated an introduction into public life the following rules: “Careerists should live in zoos. Those who take bribes should not be talked to. People should write summaries of the book they read last year and send them to the tax office. Candidates to parliament should go through an obligatory psycho-reconnaissance exam; hatred is a disease. Sub-national and local government offices should have honesty and kindness detectors installed.”

I have a few younger female friends, mostly in their early or mid-30s, who on frequent occasions have told me that they are in love with Tadeusz Mazowiecki… platonically, of course. Is it possible not to love him, I ask?

Translated by Iwona Reichardt 

This book review originally appeared in New Eastern Europ issue 2/2013: Painful Past, Fragile Future. You can learn more about this issue here: https://www.neweasterneurope.eu/node/713

To read an interview with Tadeusz Mazowiecka visit: https://www.neweasterneurope.eu/node/1000


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