04 June 2014

1989, 25 years on: Poland

25 years ago, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe began to break away from the ideology of communism and the control of Moscow, resulting in the end of the Cold War and freedom for many millions.

With Russian intervention in Ukraine, it seems appropriate to look at what happened in each of those countries and where each of them are now.

First up, the first domino, Poland.



The fact that the Wester Allies were barely into Germany when the Soviet Union removed the Nazis from Poland in 1945 meant that despite Churchill's considerable unhappiness over the matter (as he made clear in his memoirs) they had to accept Stalin was in control there. He set up a coalition government to appease Truman and the British (who changed governments during the Potsdam conference), but then comprehensively rigged elections in 1947 to impose a new communist People's Republic. The anti-communists failed to prevent a major change in borders i.e. the loss of the eastern part to the USSR and the gaining of a big chunk of Germany, but were able to prevent the country from becoming a Soviet republic. A government in exile remained active, if not really recognised by anyone, until 1990.

Lead-up to 1989

In the 1970s, the regime of First Secretary Edward Gierek attempted to reinvigorate the ailing Polish economy by massive foreign borrowing, especially from the US. This failed, especially after the 1973 oil crisis and attempts to increase food prices in 1976 were cancelled after violent protests.

In 1978, the deaths of two pontiffs in quick succession resulted in the first non-Italian since 1523 getting the job, Karol Józef Wojtyła, who is now Pope Saint John Paul II (he got the sainthood in May 2014). The election of a Pope from a communist country was a big deal. A huge one in fact. When he visited his native Poland a year later, he didn't call for a rebellion (which would have triggered a bloodbath with an uncertain outcome), but his comments were clearly an invitation to desert communism.

The regime, which could not win a fair election, got told by the Western lenders in July 1980 that it was not going to be allowed to subsidise domestic goods any more. It gave in, announced price rises... and a wave of strikes broke out. The most notable of those occurred in the port city of Gdańsk, triggered by the sacking of Anna Walentynowicz for joining a trade union. With millions engaged in action with strong public support, Warsaw had to either get repressive or make a deal. They chose the latter.

In a series of agreements in August, the communist government allowed free trade unions, abolished censorship and granted major economic concessions... the last of which they couldn't afford. As a result, one famous trade union emerged... Solidarity, leader one Lech Wałęsa. 

Solidarity, although mainly focussing on union matters, soon became a major political force in Poland and had nine million members by the end of 1981... three more than the ruling party, the Polish United Worker's Party. It was clear that the regime, who replaced Gierek with Stanisław Kania, was losing its grip; it could not boost the economy without lifting the price controls... and the people wouldn't accept the price controls from the unpopular regime... while political reform would risk the Soviet Union getting involved. Further strikes followed across the country and citing a threat of Moscow sending in the tanks, martial law was implemented in December 1981 and Wojciech Jaruzelski

Solidarity was driven underground, where it would continue to get strong support from overseas; including $50m from the Central Intelligence Agency. While martial law ended in 1983, increased restrictions on civil liberties remained in place as did the economic mess; food was rationed as the international sanctions and crippling debt interest made Poland a basket case economy.

As the 1980s headed towards their end, demonstrations became more open and Gorbachev's repudiation of the Brezhnev Doctrine i.e. his saying that the USSR would not intervene if the communist states of Central Europe broke away meant the regime was forced to reopen dialogue with Solidarity, especially after a 1987 referendum on political changes failed due to not enough people voting.


The regime and Solidarity reached a deal... free elections, but only partially. The communists and their allies would be guaranteed 65% of the seats in the Sejm, although every seat was up in the recreated Senate. They thought that would be enough to retain control, while Solidarity feared the communists might be able to gain legitimacy due to their media dominance.

The first round would be held on 4 June 1989, the day the Chinese sent in the tanks in Beijing, the second two weeks later.

The results were a surprise to everyone in the firmness of the message. Solidarity won every seat it was allowed to get in the Sejm and all bar one in the Senate, where an independent soon switched to them. The communists didn't even manage to gain enough votes for some seats they were guaranteed!

While the ruling party got its candidate (Jaruzelski) elected President, they could not form a government and Solidarity was invited to form one in August, led by new Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki. This new government altered the constitution to change the country's name back to the "Republic of Poland", implemented a rapid transition to capitalism that caused strong, but temporary economic pain and then curtailed the current President's term. The PUWP dissolved itself in January 1990.

After signing an agreement with the reunified Germany fixing the western border, Lech Wałęsa won the 1990 presidential election and 18 parties turned up in the Sejm elected in 1991.

Poland in 2014 

Lech Wałęsa narrowly lost the 1995 election after coming across badly in debates; his involvement in politics is marginal but still there.

Solidarity lost major support in 1993 because of its association with the 'shock therapy' of the new government and didn't even get into the Sejm. It has now largely distanced itself from politics.

The successors to the PUWP eventually became a key part of the Democratic Left Alliance, managing to win the presidency in 1995 and 2000, in addition to winning the 2001 parliamentary elections, but is now only the third largest political party in the opposition.

Poland is now run by the Christian democratic Civic Platform, with President Bronisław Komorowski (who took over the role in 2010 following the death of Lech Kaczyński and many top leaders in a plane crash in Smolensk) and Prime Minister Donald Tusk both coming from that party. Tusk heads a two-party centre-right coalition, with the government combining strong support for the EU and a generally conservative world view on moral issues as they relate to politics e.g. abortion and gambling.
Poland's economy has thrived since the end of communism; while still farming is still a majority component of the economy, it has attracted considerable foreign investment and its biggest trading partner is ironically enough Germany. Indeed, it was the only EU economy not to contract in the last recession.

When the country joined the EU in 2004, a large number of Poles emigrated to other countries, most notably the United Kingdom which didn't place any transitional controls on the country (for those who think this was an error, we would have had to let them in 2011 otherwise... when the unemployment rate was pretty high). This exodus has slowed down recently. You probably know a Polish migrant personally... or a descendant of one, as the Polish diaspora is a noticeable part of American culture.

Finally, Poland's foreign policy has taken a complete about turn... it is now arguably the most pro-American country in Europe, sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq; this was a country that replaced a pro-Iraq war government with one more pro-war (although sleaze had a bigger role in that election) and agreed to host part of the US missile shield there, despite Russian threats. There are still issues... Poles still need a visa to visit the US. Poland as mentioned is a major player in the EU and has a long post-war history of providing troops for peacekeeping missions.

All in all, Poland has not yet perished (as the national anthem goes)... it is very much in good health.

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