Can Europe Make It?

Poland's 1980s, and "transitology" today

The 90th birthday of General Jaruzelski, the military figure who imposed martial law in Poland in 1981, was marked by a flurry of backward-looking, politicised debate. A pity, says Krzysztof Bobinski, for the experience of those times offers potential lessons to many regions around the world.

Krzysztof Bobinski
22 July 2013

The military coup in Egypt which toppled an elected government in the name of democracy shows how hard the transition from an authoritarian regimes to a democratic order can be. The same lesson is taught by the fate of the other north African and Arab revolutions, as well as developments in Russia and other post-Soviet states.

In Poland that transition took place twenty-four years ago. The change was peaceful and the effects appear to be permanent. A whole new generation has been born and grown up since, but many of the key actors like Lech Wałęsa, the Solidarity leader and General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the military leader who crushed Wałęsa's movement in December 1981, are still alive. The debate on the rights and wrongs of those times rumbles on. But it fails to give any pointers to would-be revolutionaries in today’s undemocratic regimes or to those authoritarian rulers who might consider handing power over to their people while avoiding poverty, jail or death in a concrete pipe by a dusty roadside. The Polish debate is very much a black-and white-affair with those who still have the strength to argue failing to give nuanced views of what actually happened in 1989 - and thus advice, or at least food for thought, to those facing similar dilemmas in today’s world.

Adam Michnik's intervention

An opportunity was missed recently when General Jaruzelski celebrated his 90th birthday. On the day itself, on 6 July 2013, his most faithful supporters - all of whom once belonged to the liberal wing of the then ruling establishment - organised a conference on his achievements in the Hyatt hotel, a little way down the road from the monumental Russian (once Soviet) embassy in Warsaw. That sunny Saturday morning around a hundred mostly young people, many of whom had not been alive in 1989 - let alone in 1981 when martial law was imposed by the general - gathered outside to demonstrate. Almost all were from the renascent right-wing nationalist end of the political spectrum, which loves to chant that “communists should be hung like leaves on trees”. They made no secret of the fact that they thought the general deserves the same fate.

They contend that the present system is a mere extension of the communist times; that democracy is a sham; and that Poland is not independent, as before 1989. They are on the political fringe but on 11 November, the national day, they can put thousands of supporters on the streets. They also have the silent approval of the rightwing Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc (Law & Justice / PiS) party which the opinion-polls show is a strong challenger for power in elections due in 2015. On General Jaruzelski’s birthday, however, the rest of the population gave the Hyatt a miss. Most people preferred to enjoy the summer weather.

There was a smattering of texts, mostly hostile to the general, in the newspapers. One of them was different. It was penned by Adam Michnik, a determined oppositionist from his teens in the 1960s and now the chief editor of the liberal Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s leading daily. Michnik had spent many years in prison in the communist era, most of them in the 1980s after the imposition of martial law. He was clear about his feelings for the general: “I admire him as the politician who was responsible for the round-table negotiations” (which led to the 1989 power-sharing agreement and consequently the end of the communist regime) and “for the crucial role he played in the peaceful dismantling of the dictatorship in Poland”.

It was a brave, unequivocal statement which few others in Poland are willing to make. Michnik’s point is more than valid. Poland managed in 1989 to emerge from a dictatorship thanks to an agreement between the then underground Solidarity opposition and the government. The deal was brokered and guaranteed by the Catholic church which managed to maintain the trust of both sides. The general was a crucial element of the agreement.

The miracle

The price the opposition paid was to guarantee Poland’s communist rulers a place in public life after the change. Indeed the successor party to the communists, the Left Democratic Alliance (SLD), won an election in 1993 and ran the country till 1997 (and then again from 2001-05). Also there was an unspoken agreement to forget if not forgive past transgressions by communist rulers such as the general who as the head of the armed forces in the 1960s and 1970s had done more than oversee the Polish part of the Warsaw pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. For in the same year he had been in charge when officers of Jewish origin were purged from the armed forces. In 1970, moreover, he was at the helm when soldiers had fired on unarmed shipyard workers in the Baltic ports demonstrating for better working conditions.

The litany also includes the very fact that he had stayed in the armed forces after the war (he had been deported to the Soviet Union from Poland in 1940 and joined the communist-dominated Polish army there) and had been promoted thereafter. This must have meant that he had earned the trust of the Soviets by showing no sign of questioning of anything they asked him to do. These are the arguments which are now being raised by the come-lately radicals (see "Poland: the politics of history", 12 April 2010)..

But it is in the nature of being a dictator that unsavoury things are done on the way up and when power has been attained. Oppositionists who want such people to relinquish power have to face the fact that by doing so incumbents will escape punishment. Otherwise they will fight to stay. Better to get them to leave peacefully.

General Jaruzelski’s main defence is that he imposed martial law in December 1981 to forestall a Soviet military invasion which would have brutally crushed Solidarity. He chose the "lesser evil". Indeed remarkably few people died as a result of martial law also thanks to Solidarity’s ideology of non-violence. Now, however, retired Soviet generals fail to do Jaruzelski the courtesy of confirming they would have invaded Poland in 1981. On the contrary they deny they would ever have done so, embroiled as they were in Afghanistan. Nevertheless there is a good chance that the Red Army would have intervened. Jaruzelski, for his part, is sticking to his version. And finally, as Michnik pointed out, he oversaw the negotiation of the power-sharing agreement in 1989 which led to the fall of his regime in a peaceful way. That was the miracle.

The future

How much of this experience can be useful for present day regime-changers? What is happening in Myanmar certainly appears to have borrowed something from Poland’s experience. However north Africa and the middle east lack the intermediaries that can bring rival factions together and establish a consensus about change as did the Catholic church in Poland, under the watchful eye of Pope John Paul II, a Pole. The Polish events were very much influenced by what was happening in Moscow under Mikhail Gorbachev. Earlier, Poles had feared a Russian invasion; later, the Jaruzelski regime realised that Moscow wanted change in Poland. That too was a powerful driver.

The question of how to make the transition now faces Russia where a move away, sooner or later, from the authoritarian KGB style of Vladimir Putin appears inevitable. In many of the other post-Soviet states the leaders also stay in power by falsifying elections. This deprives their regimes of the legitimacy they need to stay in power. Challenges to these regimes will come. Corruption is also a cancer which, in countries like Azerbaijan, the population are finding it increasingly difficult to stomach.

"Transitology" certainly has a future and Poland’s experience can help. It is a pity that neither side involved in General Jaruzelski’s birthday celebrations, so focused on the past, is giving much thought to that.

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