23rd Jan 2020

Solidarity celebrations mask tensions

  • Lech Walesa helped spark the reunification of Europe in Gdansk in 1980 (Photo: Polish government)

Poland and the EU celebrated the 25th anniversary of the anti-communist Solidarity movement on Tuesday (30 August), but Warsaw and Europe face deep political divisions despite the rhetoric of goodwill.

The series of strikes by Gdansk shipyard workers in 1980 under the Solidarity trade union banner began a chain of events that led to the collapse of the Soviet empire and the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989.

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Lech Walesa, the original leader of the Solidarity group, put the Polish revolution on a par with the French revolt of 1789 and Gandhi's liberation of India from UK colonialism in the 20th century.

Sixty-two year old Mr Walesa, who plans to retire from politics this year, also heaped praise on the late pope John Paul II and former Russian leaders Gorbachev and Yeltsin for their role in the changes, while speaking at the 'From Solidarity to Freedom' conference in Warsaw.

German president Horst Kohler and EU commission president Jose Manuel Barroso attended the event, with Mr Barroso praising Polish progress since EU accession last year in the popular Polish daily, Gazeta Wyborcza.

"One year after accession you can say: it was a great success. And now you are on the best road to the euro and to the lifting of border controls under the Schengen agreement", the Brussels head indicated.

Polish president Alexander Kwasniewski, who worked for the communist government that Mr Walesa helped to overthrow, stretched out a hand of friendship to the Nobel peace prize winner.

"Twenty five years ago I did not stand on the same side as you, but now I have no doubt that your vision of Poland took us in the right direction", Mr Kwasniewski said.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament organised an exhibition and concert with other Solidarity heroes such as liberal MEP Bronislaw Geremek in Brussels, with the EU setting aside €500,000 to help commemorate the event.

Tensions bubble to surface

But the celebration also helped to highlight some of the underlying tensions in Polish and European politics today.

Mr Barroso spoke of the need for solidarity in settling the EU's 2007-2013 budget, with the UK-French scrap over farm subsidies threatening to lead to lower funding for poorer eastern European members.

President Kohler assured Warsaw that the German government does not support recent calls for compensation of German families exiled after World War II and that Poland will be involved more closely in German-Russian relations and energy deals.

"I believe that Poland and the Baltic states should be included in this process [talks on building a Baltic Sea gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, bypassing Poland]", he said.

Contracts for the controversial project are expected to be signed on 8 September.

Mr Walesa used the celebrations to stress Poland's concerns over Russia's threat to European stability, urging Europe not to press too hard for democracy in former Soviet states such as Belarus for fear of a backlash from "the Russian bear".

Poland has been a strong supporter of regime change in countries such as Ukraine and Georgia and is currently pushing the EU for more action to support opposition movements in Belarus.

And UK academic Lord Ralf Gustav Dahrendorf warned the EU of trimming back civil liberties in line with new anti-terror proposals, saying "Democracy and the rule of law are being stolen from under our noses".

Poland still divided 25 years on

The picture in Poland itself is not as bright as Mr Barroso's remarks suggest.

Some rightwing MPs boycotted Mr Walesa's speech to the Polish lower house on Monday on allegations that the Solidarity movement's history is tainted with financial and political corruption.

The current pro-EU Polish government is set to be replaced by more eurosceptic parties in next month's general elections, partly due to the social-democrats' links with corruption scandals in the privatisation of state firms such as the PKN Orlen refinery.

Poland came last out of the EU in last year's corruption league table published by NGO Transparency International, also charting behind Colombia and Cuba.

Twenty five years after the birth of Solidarity, Poland feels more secure as a vocal member of the EU and NATO and has one of the fastest growing economies in the bloc.

But unemployment is still the highest in the union at almost 20 percent, and many Poles feel disillusioned with the European ideal on the back of the failed referendums and budget talks earlier this year.

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