Walesa watches history pass him by


GDANSK — Lech Walesa lived through several moments similar to what Iranian demonstrators are now witnessing: when the forces of change and revolution are poised against the forces of power and the gun, and the outcome is very uncertain.

Having led a successful revolution, which ended communist rule in 1989 and saw him elected for a five-year term as Poland’s president, the former leader of the Solidarity labor union exudes dissatisfaction at being on the sidelines and no longer having any impact on the course of events. (Read more about organizing protests before modern telecommunications.)

“Of course more things could have been done more cleverly and always more quickly,” he said of Poland’s transformation. “One could have a lot of wishes after the fact.”

Now, he refuses to let go of the limelight.

While Mikhail Gorbachev runs a foundation and has become an advertising icon, and Nelson Mandela has become a grandfatherly figure to South Africa, Walesa, 65, still toys with the idea of returning to active politics. Despite opinion poll numbers that show his potential support in the single digits, he never rules out the possibility of another run at high office.

Keeping his hand in means that Walesa is rarely out of the news in Poland.

Over the last year he has been involved in disputes with Lech Kaczynski, Poland’s president, with the government of Donald Tusk, the prime minister and his erstwhile ally, and with historians he accuses of trying to besmirch his reputation. He even took controversial stands during the recent elections to the European parliament.

“There is something of the warrior in me,” he said, sitting in his office in the heart of the historic city of Gdansk, only about a mile from the shipyard where he led the 1980 strikes that shook communism to the core. “I have a vision, and I know I’m right.”

The stubbornness and vision was what helped take a simple man born in poverty during World War II and turn him into an anti-communist agitator and leader. Walesa began his run-ins with the communist authorities in the 1970s, when worker unrest along the Baltic coast was fiercely put down by the authorities.

The lesson from that strike was that protestors should not take to the streets, where the police and army could gun them down, and that they should not negotiate separately with the authorities. In 1980, when strikes broke out at the Gdansk shipyard, followed by other industrial plants, leaders, including Walesa, occupied factories and refused to cut separate deals with the communists.

Following the declaration of martial law in 1981, Walesa became the leading figure of Polish resistance, refusing to buckle to communist blandishments until the regime, weakened by yet another wave of strikes in 1988, was forced to come to the negotiating table.

But the success of the 1989 partially free elections, which decimated the communists, was followed by Walesa’s presidency, which was much less successful than his time as opposition leader. He unleashed a civil war within the former Solidarity movement, which allowed the ex-communists to return to power in 1993.

In 1995 Walesa lost a reelection bid by 2 percentage points to suave ex-communist Aleksander Kwasniewski, a fact that still smarts.

“Kwasniewski knew he didn’t have any arguments to help Poland,” said a bitter Walesa. “He shouldn’t have forced his way in, he shouldn’t have taken away Poland’s five minutes in the limelight.”

He is just as caustic about his other foes, including the Kaczynski twins, Poland’s president and opposition leader. He calls them “losers” and “demagogues.” But Walesa makes even his allies uncomfortable. Tusk, who has frequently come to Walesa’s defense, was nonplussed to see the Nobel laureate flirting with the Libertas Euro-skeptical party set up by Irish millionaire Declan Ganley during the recent European parliament elections.

“I decided to get to know my opponents and their arguments,” said Walesa, before admitting that he was partly motivated by the lucrative speaking fees he received. “Of course I take more money from Libertas … I need money because I only have a small pension.”

Walesa is particularly upset over accusations that he had cooperated with the secret police in the 1970s under the code name “Bolek.” “The young wolves are attacking,” he said of the historians, who have pushed the idea in recent books.

“In the 1970s, I was essentially the leader during those battles; should I have not been talking to the secret police?” he said. “I was the only one allowed to talk to them, no one else was allowed, because that would have been treason. If I hadn’t gotten to know the secret police in so many ways, could I have fought as well as I did in 1980?”

Throughout the conversation there is a sense of loss — that Walesa wants to be at the center of the action again, but knows history has passed him by.

“It’s not the time to have people on the streets,” he said. “Now is the era of intellect, information and the internet.”

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