The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

Poles Mark Twentieth Anniversary of Round Table Talks.

6th February 1989 – Twenty years ago today in Warsaw, fifty-seven representatives drawn from the Polish Communist Party (an official delegation led by then Minister of the Interior Czeslaw Kiszczak) and the banned trade union ‘Solidarity’ (led by Lech Walesa) quietly sat down around a large table to discuss the best way to quell the growing tensions evident in Polish society. The rest, as they say, is history.

Known as the ’round table talks’ these negotiations ran from 6 Feb – 4 April and the resulting agreement, signed on 5th April 1989 paved the way for freedom of speech, democratisation and reform in Poland, which ultimately led to the collapse of the communist regime. The willingness of the Polish Communist Party to enter into a meaningful dialogue with their opponents symbolised a radical break in party policy (just seven years earlier Polish leader General Wojciech Jaruzelski had sent tanks out onto the streets of Warsaw in a declaration of Martial Law to quell protests against his regime), and the events that unfolded in Poland as a result of these talks sent a strong signal to their ‘comrades’ across the East European region that change was now possible, igniting the spark that led to the revolutions of 1989.

Polish Round Table Talks, Warsaw, 6th February 1989.

The Clue is in the name: Polish Round Table Talks, Warsaw, 6th February 1989

Twenty years on from the opening of the round table talks, while it is events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 that have stuck in the popular consciousness as symbolising the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the Poles remain justifiably proud of their part in the events of 1989 and a series of commemorative events are planned to mark the occasion. On 29th January a ceremony was held at the Gdansk shipyards (site of the 1980 strike movement and the ‘birthplace of Solidarity’) and a plaque unveiled to celebrate the recent granting of a European Heritage Label to the site for its historic significance. The old Polish embassy in Berlin yesterday (5th February) unveiled a  banner bearing a large photograph of the round table talks and the slogan ‘It started with the Round Table’, with a conference also organised for 9th February to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the talks. The European Solidarity Centre are planning a series of events in coming months, including a musical about the 1980 Gdansk Shipyard strikes and the birth of Solidarity, while a film honouring Father Jerzy Popieluszko (the priest, a leading Solidarity activist, was arrested, interrogated and murdered by the secret police in October 1984) is to be released in March.

The Polish Newspaper Rzeczpospolita today published the results of a public opinion poll indicating that a growing number of Poles now say they feel ‘disatisfied’ with the outcome of the round table negotiations however, with many feeling that the Polish people were cheated or ‘sold out’ by arrangements which enabled former communist leaders to retain wealth and influence in the post-Communist period. Lech Walesa, former leader of Solidarity and Polish President 1990-1995 agreed on Monday that the round table talks were ‘a rotton compromise’ and admitted that some of the consequences of the talks ‘proved contradictory to expectations of the participants’. However he defended the actions of those involved and the need for a peaceful compromise, stating that he himself ‘had to behave dishonestly in that situation, but would do the same again’. Walesa went on to explain that:

(It was) a very rotten compromise, base, but without it we wouldn’t have been able to move on. Without the round table communism could have stuck around for 50 years and a day. Certainly, one day communism would have toppled, logically thinking in 30 or 50 years, and it would have ended then in a bloodbath

Current Polish President Lech Kaczynski also agreed, in a statement published in today’s Rzeczpospolita, that while ‘from today’s perspective I believe there was a possibility to negotiate more, that kind of thing is only obvious months or even years later’.

When covering the subject of the collapse of communism in East Europe with my students (most of whom were now not born until after communism had fallen across Eastern Europe), one of the biggest problems I often face is convincing them that the events of 1989, and the course these events took were by no means inevitable. With hindsight it is all too easy to look back twenty years ago and view the fall of communism across East Europe as the only natural outcome of the changes taking place, but at the time that was far from the case. The round table talks are a good case in point. Even today, twenty years on, those who were involved in the process look back and marvel at the way events unfolded in Poland. Tadeusz Mazowiecki (leading Solidarity activist and Poland’s first non-communist Prime Minister 1989-1991) stated earlier today that:

“No one on either side thought events would move so quickly and that six months later my government would see the light of day. All we hoped for from those negotiations at the most was the legalisation of Solidarity, seven years after it was banned by the communists … Nothing was set in stone. Hard-line communists were still very strong.

And negotiators from the Polish Communist Party have also been marking today’s anniversary by recalling their shock at the course events took in 1989.  Leszek Miller, a communist negotiator in 1989 (and later Polish Prime Minister 2001-2004) argues that:

“I thought it would be a step towards democracy and that Solidarity would take on the role of the opposition, certainly not the role of government straight away … Solidarity got much, much more than it had demanded”

Former Communist media advisor Jerzy Urban also disputes the ‘inevitability’ of the outcome of the round table talks. Referring to the elections held on 4th June 1989 where Solidarity triumphed, winning 99 out of 100 seats in the Polish senate, Urban reminds people today that the Communists were still in charge and that ‘we could have easily falsified the election results, but we chose to recognise them’.

Most other East European countries are organsing events to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the revolutions of 1989, so I will be writing more on this topic as the year progresses.

February 6, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment