Photographer: Jorma Puusa/AFP/Getty Images

Walesa Fears for Poland -- and Europe

The Solidarity founder says his homeland shows how democracy in Eastern Europe is flawed.

Almost four decades have passed since Lech Walesa faced down the communist regime at the Gdansk shipyard, and he says his fears of a backlash are now a reality in the new Poland.

His homeland secured membership in the European Union and NATO and the economy boomed. Yet it now stands accused of ditching the West’s democratic values, is at risk of unprecedented EU sanctions and its government is rewriting the history books. Walesa, 73, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is depicted as a collaborator rather than hero.

“I told the shipyard workers when the strike ended: ‘Today you carry me on your shoulders, tomorrow you’ll throw rocks at me,’” Walesa said in an interview in the Baltic port on the eve of Thursday’s anniversary of the 1980 Solidarity accords he signed. “I knew economic reforms would be difficult and dangerous, that building democracy would be risky and that things can happen. Well, they’re happening.”

Once a symbol of revival and the success of EU expansion, Poland has turned into a threat to the political order it seemed so desperate to join.

Under a one-time Solidarity ally of Walesa and now foe, Poland’s nationalist leadership is rebelling against the European mainstream, drawing support from U.S. President Donald Trump and castigation from western neighbors. French President Emmanuel Macron last week said Poland could end up on the margins of Europe if it didn’t change course.

Polish financial markets have risen this year alongside their emerging-market peers, though investors have become “complacent” about political risk, according to Piotr Matys, a strategist at Rabobank. They should realize that the government’s “confrontational approach toward its EU partners may have serious consequences,” he said.

Power Grab

After taking over all forms of public media and installing its own people at state-run companies, the ruling Law & Justice party’s power grab of the courts was watered down by President Andrzej Duda in July after tens of thousands of Poles took to the streets for nearly a fortnight to protest the legislation. 

But Duda is also a party loyalist and promised to rejig the legislation he vetoed and present it to parliament this year. It makes the next few months pivotal for the country that is the biggest net recipient of EU aid. 

Frans Timmermans, the vice president of the EU's executive, said on Thursday that Poland has shown no willingness to resolve the rule-of-law dispute through dialog. The EU must be ready to respond with “all our tools,” he said. They include the possibility of stripping Poland of its voting rights.

“It’s clear that Poland is headed for political conflict as the ruling party has a very radical program that seeks to change most spheres of public life,” said Antoni Dudek, a political scientist at Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw. “The anniversary of the Solidarity accords is just another setting for political strife, as history -- especially the latest chapters -- is used as a tool to discredit political opponents.”

Lech Walesa in front of Gdansk Regional Court  on 24 July 2017. 
Photographer:  Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images

For Walesa, it’s also personal. Using secret files unearthed last year, the government is making Walesa out to be a traitor, who was paid to rat on his shipyard colleagues during the 1970s. Walesa says the documents are forgeries made by the communists.

From the EU-funded European Solidarity Center, built on the grounds of the bankrupt shipyard where he was an electrician, it leaves Walesa poised to complete his journey from a street-smart pro-democracy activist to Polish president and back again.

New Direction

With his trademark mustache trimmed short and still sporting a pin of the Mother Mary in his lapel, Walesa won’t celebrate his first big victory over communism with his old union colleagues -- they didn’t invite him. Instead, Walesa said his heart is with an anti-government rally being staged within shouting distance of the official commemorations at the old Gdansk shipyard gate. “I'll go where I'm needed,” he told reporters on Thursday.

“Similar to Trump’s America and France under its new president, Poland is searching for direction in the 21st century,” Walesa said the morning before. “The world is uniting, Europe has a single currency and virtually no borders, but nobody thought about the values that should be behind this, and whether they make sense to the people.”

Law & Justice, like Trump and populists across Europe, say they are standing up for ordinary people left behind by the forces of globalization the EU elites represent. To be sure, the party’s popularity remains high almost two years after winning a majority in the Polish Parliament, a feat never achieved before since democracy was restored in 1989.

Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said this week that EU pressure on Poland to back down from planned court changes amounted to “harassment,” especially as the contested proposals “cater to public expectations” at home. Government officials have repeatedly said the changes are needed to end a “caste of unaccountable judges.”

Circling Demons

Sitting in his office between a painting of Polish-born Pope John Paul II and Josef Pilsudski, the country’s leader between last century’s two world wars, Walesa said that the democracy he helped create in eastern Europe is deeply flawed. And things will get worse in Poland before they improve, he said.

Stuck in a values vacuum, and without sustainable economic proposals to rejuvenate growth, “demons” are being awoken across the world, giving new credibility to extremists, Walesa said. What’s more, the EU is unable to stop the authoritarian drifts of its supposed allies inside the 28-nation bloc, such as in Poland or Hungary.

Walesa, who served as Polish president from 1990 to 1995, said the problem is that the EU doesn’t know how to deal with it. European leaders must give member nations not only powers but also more responsibilities to “avoid another incident like Poland,” even if that temporarily breaks apart the world’s biggest trading bloc, he said.

“We thought that once we win freedom, everything will go smoothly: We were wrong,” Walesa, who was hospitalized last month with cardiac problems, said after laying flowers at the shipyard monument where Solidarity is holding its commemorations. “We have to put things in order, and I'll need your active support because I've grown old and tired.”

A few meters from him, a sign on the old Gdansk shipyard gate read: “History was created here.”

— With assistance by Marek Strzelecki, Dorota Bartyzel, and Adrian Krajewski

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