It is an interesting paradox that leaders who are revered around the world are often seen in a completely different light by the natives of that leader’s particular country. To this day, many Brits shudder or foam at the mouth when the name “Thatcher” is mentioned; Russians loathe Gorbachov and a large number of Polish people cannot stand the sight of Lech Wałęsa. However, all three are regarded as heroic figures throughout the world.
One of the reasons for this peculiar paradox is that natives are able to see their heroes on a daily basis, warts and all. Information that does not necessarily reach the world press is fed to the domestic masses on a regular basis so that every raised voice, grimace or faux pas is repeated four times a day on prime time TV. It’s hard to be a hero.
Say what you like about Wałęsa but when he was at his best he had the uncanny ability to see a situation for what it was and comment on it often to the dismay of his enemies and chagrin of his supporters. He is often mocked in Poland for his lack of eloquence, his slovenliness and poor use of Polish which is astonishing for a figure responsible for some of the wittiest one-liners and catchiest slogans in modern Polish history, such as:
“Czuj się odwołany” (feel dismissed ~ you are dismissed)
“Jestem za, a nawet przeciw” (I’m for, even against)
“Rozmawialiśmy jak Polak z Polakiem” (we talked as one Pole to another)
“To są ostatnie godziny naszych pięciu minut” (these are the final hours of our five minutes of fame)
“Są plusy dodatnie i plusy ujemne” (there can be positive positives and negative positives)
He is also credited with saying:
“Nie chcem, ale muszem” (= a negatively accented version of “nie chcę, ale muszę” = I don’t want to but I have to).
which has since become a negative Wałęsa ‘label’, although, unbeknown to most people, he did not actually say this, as anyone who read the Gazeta Wyborcza interview in question would know.
When analysing modern Polish political history, we can see that Wałęsa was without a doubt a landmark figure. In fact, Polish politics can perhaps even be divided along Wałęsa fault-lines, that is figures who were on his side and those who were not. The first such division was between General Wojciech Jaruzelski (the last communist leader of Poland) and Wałęsa, the leader of the forces of good (and Solidarity). Wałęsa was victorious.
The second division came with the “war above” effectively providing a catalyst for the splintering of Solidarity into two factions:
(1) Porozumienie Centrum (Centre Agreement) set up by Jarosław Kaczyński to support Wałęsa in the 1990 presidential elections (later turning into Law and Justice) and
(2) Ruch Obywatelski Akcja Demokratyczna (Citizens’ Movement for Democratic Action) (later evolving into the Democratic Party – a part of Left and Democrats – and Civic Platform) which supported Tadeusz Mazowiecki in the same elections. Wałęsa was again victorious.
The division between the ‘Hard’ Right (Law and Justice) and ‘Soft’ Right (Civic Platform) still remains, although now Wałęsa is a supporter of the latter. The break from the Hard Right (in the form of the Centre Agreement) was a messy one. Tired of what he believed to be the unfortunate politics of a useless Centre Agreement administration headed by Jan Olszewski, President Wałęsa removed the whole government replacing Olszewski with a young Waldemar Pawlak (ironically now coalition partner to Civic Platform). In protest, the Kaczyńskis burnt effigies of Wałęsa in front of the presidential palace signalling Wałęsa to later say something on the lines of God help Poland should it ever be governed by the Kaczyńskis.
Older he may be but Wałęsa has not lost any of his arrogance or lust for life. Now, looking back, his words relating to the Kaczyńskis seem almost prophetic. During the recent election campaign the new Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk talked about his respect for the “man with the moustache”. Several days ago, Tusk called upon Wałęsa to help re-build Poland’s place in Europe and the world. Tusk has asked him to be a special envoy for the government.