I first visited Poland in September 1989 in what were interesting times. The place was in many ways bleak, the shops were empty and many people appeared worn down by the daily battle to put food on the table in an economy of endemic shortages and a currency that was practically worthless. The first signs of change, and hope, had however already appeared. The previous month Tadeusz Mazowiecki, whose funeral was held in Warsaw yesterday, had been sworn in as the country’s first non-Communist Prime Minister since 1948. This followed what seemed at the time a bold experiment. Following round table discussions between the Communists and the Solidarity opposition in the spring of 1989, it had been agreed that partially free elections to the Parliament or Sejm would be held. A third of the seats would be contested with two thirds reserved for the Polish United Workers’ party (PZPR). The elections were held on Sunday 4th June 1989 and resulted in a Solidarity landslide. Two months of delicate negotiations later, Mazowiecki formed his Solidarity government.
He seemed an unlikely politician, with the air of a professor unwillingly dragged from his study, uninterested in power for its own sake but taking on this difficult and challenging job out of a sense of duty to his country. It was his government that set in train the reforms that have let Poland to where it is now, a country that is far from perfect but which is a stable parliamentary democracy, one with institutions strong enough to survive the decimation of the Polish elite in the Smolensk disaster.
What Mazowiecki had to do quickly made him unpopular. He appointed Leszek Balcerowicz as Finance Minister and, on January 1st 1990, the free market shock therapy that was intended to bring the country back from the brink of bankruptcy began. Later that year, as more and more people felts the effects of the shock therapy, Mazowiecki stood against Lech Wałęsa for President. This proved a humiliation for him as he came third in the First round, behind a Polish-Canadian businessman of dubious background called Stan Tyminski. This marked the end of Mazowiecki’s career in Polish domestic politics and it was others who carried the reforms on.
A quarter of a century on then, Poland has institutions whose functioning was barely affected by Smolensk. Smolensk is in many ways a measure of the success of the last twenty for years yet it has become a rallying point for people who ultimately reject all that has happened in Poland since 1989. A section of the nationalist and integrist right is convinced that what happened in 10th April 2010 was no accident, but murder by the Russians, probably in a conspiracy with the current liberal right of centre Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Their views are unsupported by evidence and seemingly impervious to reasoned argument. In fact the groups that propagate these views have all the essential characteristics of cults. Not for nothing have Polish commentators coined the term ‘religia Smoleńska’. Many of these people also argue that the Third Polish Republic formally inaugurated in 1990 needs to be replaced by a Fourth Republic. They suggest that what happened in 1989 was at best a messy and unsatisfactory compromise, at worst a sell-out to the Communist and a betrayal of national interests. They argue that, in the wake of Solidarity’s overwhelming victory in the 1989 election, maximalist demands should have been pursued and the Communists swept from power.
This view is both unrealistic and anachronistic. In the summer of 1989 no-one foresaw the dramatic events of the Autumn when, in the space of two months, Communist regimes fell from Sofia to East Berlin. No-one knew how the Soviet Union would react and everyone was aware that there were several thousand Soviet troops stationed in the country. There were significant dangers in the Solidarity negotiators overplaying their hand. What they did was come up with a formula ‘Your President, Our Prime Minister’ which kept the Communist Wojciech Jaruzelski as head of state while deftly removing from him the levers of power. The reforms could begin and the Soviet Union was reassured. A difficult hand had been played with great skill.
With the exception of the nationalist fanatics whose electoral base is, one must hope, in long term decline, Poland is actually quite a normal country these days. Large crowds came to say farewell to Tadeusz Mazowiecki. Perhaps they had finally learned to love a man who governed them out of a sense of duty and not through personal ambition, a man they could contrast with today’s politicians who many Poles see as venal and corrupt. Their low opinion of career politicians is something they share with people in many other countries and another sign of Poland’s normality. Maybe that too is part of Mazowiecki’s achievement.