Forty years after the birth of the Solidarity union which united the Poles and enabled them to defeat communism, Poland is now deeply divided and concerns hang over the state of its democracy.
The image became iconic: on August 31, 1980, armed with an enormous pen with the effigy of Polish Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa signed the Gdansk agreements with the Communists, a document which officially gave birth to Solidarity, the first union independent of the communist bloc.
“I knew that the Communists wanted to fool me, that they were trying to reach an agreement with us but to remain in power,” this former electrician from the Gdansk shipyards, who in 1990 became president of Poland, told AFP.
“I didn’t want to let myself be fooled, I told them: give me a little, and I whispered that I would take the rest on my own. And I succeeded, ”adds the Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Ten million Poles, workers and intellectuals, peasants, teachers, artists and students joined this peaceful movement unprecedented in the country’s history.
Broken a year later by the state of siege instituted by General Wojciech Jaruzelski, Solidarity returned, even if diminished, to win hands down the first semi-free elections, on June 4, 1989, and precipitate the fall of communism in the whole block.
Foundations of independence
“August 1980 constitutes the foundations of Polish independence and democracy,” Aleksander Hall, historian, former adviser to Lech Walesa during the Gdansk strikes, then minister of the first post-communist government told AFP.
“The Solidarity movement was exceptional both for its scale and its peaceful strategy and played a key role in the destruction of the old system,” he adds.
Today, Poland is a member of the European Union and NATO. Its economy, whose growth interrupted for 30 years was only slowed down by the pandemic, is currently the sixth in the EU.
But if the economic transformation is successful, society is shared more than ever.
The results of the last presidential elections prove it. In the July poll, Conservative President Andrzej Duda was reelected with just 51% against 49% for his liberal competitor Rafal Trzaskowski.
The middle, liberal, better-educated and younger classes living in the big cities supported Mr. Trzaskowski, while the older, less-educated and rural voters voted for Mr. Duda.
The divisions are so deep that they often go so far as to destroy family relationships.
Supported by part of society, the centralizing project of the nationalist conservatives of Law and Justice (PiS) arouses fears of the liberal part of society.
Right wing state
Since taking power in 2015, the PiS led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski – a former collaborator of Lech Walesa who has become one of his worst enemies – has implemented a series of controversial legal reforms deemed by the opposition and by Brussels as a threat to the judicial independence and for the rule of law.
However, according to the PiS, these reforms are necessary to combat corruption and the vestiges of communism in the judiciary, while according to its critics it is only a method to expand its power.
The conservatives believe that the Poland after 1989 was created on the basis of a rotten compromise of part of the liberals resulting from Solidarity with the Communists and that it is necessary to reorganize the structures of the State to purify them of vestiges of communism.
The Solidarity union still exists. Even if it claims the legacy of the 1980 movement, it is today just a union like any other, with around 500,000 members, and criticized for its very close links with power.
“It is very effective as a union, it is enough just that it presents its demands and it obtains what it wants”, launches laughing Jerzy Borowczak, organizer of the strikes of Gdansk in 1980, today liberal deputy.
“What I miss today is the atmosphere of the time, we were united, today one turns against the other”, he adds.
A sign of times and divisions, the two political camps claiming the legacy of Solidarity will celebrate the 40th anniversary of his birth separately. Lech Walesa and the liberal opposition will celebrate it in the morning, while President Andrzej Duda and the government will celebrate in the afternoon.