September 29, 2005

September 29, 2005 | Commentary on

'We were the first'

On Sunday, the Poles cast off the legacy of communism, once again. The weekend election gave a handy victory to a conservative coalition, tossing out the former Communists who have run the country for the past four years. The election came just about a month after the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Solidarity union in Gdansk, a crucially important event in the demise of the Soviet empire.

While President Aleksander has made Poland a solid ally of the United States during the Iraq war and increasingly a player in the European Union, which Poland recently joined, his domestic popularity plummeted thanks to corruption scandals besetting his party and Poland's intractable 18 percent unemployment rate. Voter turnout was low, just 40 percent, a sign of disenchantment and disaffection among Polish voters.

The two winning center parties both trace their origins to the anti-Communist Solidarity movement. The Catholic Law and Justice Party, led by identical twins Jaroslaw and Lech Kaczynski, won the poll with just under 27 percent of the vote. The free-market Civic Platform was second with 24 percent. Together they now hold 285 seats in the 460-seat parliament. This could be the fulfillment of the revolution started by Solidarity a quarter century ago, a real break with the past.

The struggle to escape from the past and from the stifling clutches of its oppressive ideology can be a long one. This has been true not just for the Poles, who were the first Central Europeans to claim their freedom in the 1980s, but also for every country that has been subject to communist authoritarian rule. In most countries of the former east bloc, socialists and ex-Communists made a return to political power in the early years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain, as reformers faltered and nostalgia for the old days set in. Needless to say, the policies of ex-Communists worked no better in the 21st century than those of the Communists did in the 20th.

At a star-studded event on Capitol Hill on Monday, former Polish President Lech Walesa spoke about the lessons of the Solidarity movement, which started so small in the shipyard in Gdansk and did so much to change the world. His presence 25 years after it all began, is a reminder that patience is indispensable if you are working for change, a lesson we all should take to heart as the West confronts the challenge of radical Islam.

"We were the first. We knocked the teeth out of the Soviet bear and when the bear was harmless others could follow," said Mr. Walesa said with typical bravura. He also reminded his listeners that the Solidarity phenomenon is an example of the fragility of tyrannies.

Faced with the awakening of the Polish nation after the election of Pope John Paul II, the Soviets and their Polish caretaker government of Gen. Jaruzelski were at a loss. The Soviets had 250,000 troops in Poland, while the striking shipyard workers and their supporters had only passive resistance on their side. Yet the sense of spiritual liberation was eventually too powerful for the tanks and weapons to overcome. The first cracks had started to appear in the Iron Curtain. Once that happened, support from the Reagan administration for the long struggle against communism throughout the 1980s was crucial for the Poles.

Today, Mr. Walesa said, we face a different world with different challenges. "We shut down one system and opened up another," embodied in the Internet and the globalized world. In the world of the 21st century, however, spiritual values will be as important as they were in the fight against communism. This is where the EU constitution, which this summer was turned down by French and Dutch voters, fell short. "It left the sphere of values to each individual," said Mr. Walesa. "This is the last thing you need in the age of globalization. The more technology you have, the more you need values." It will be recalled that Poland was holding out for a mention of Christianity in the pre-amble to the EU constitution, but lost the argument.

Poland's new center-right government, which has to be formed by November, will face a number of important challenges. Domestically, Poland needs to reduce its government sector, fight corruption, and reform its social security and healthcare systems. Internationally, the Poles will remain important allies of the United States and can be expected to seek a stronger role in shaping EU policy. They have come a long way since the barricades in Gdansk a quarter century ago.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times