Round Table Anniversary

February 6, 2009

Mazowiecki, Kuroń, Wałęsa, Kwaśniewski...

Foreground (l-r): Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Lech Wałęsa. Background (l-r): Kuroń, Geremek, Kwaśniewski.

Today is a wonderful day. The 6th February 2009 is the 20th anniversary of one of the most important moments in European history. On the 6th February 1989, twenty years ago, the so-called ‘Round Table’ talks kicked off in Warsaw and so began the dismantling of the totalitarian regime in Poland.

Good vs. Evil
The Round Table talks were pretty amazing as they saw the communist government invite representatives of Solidarity (the anti-government, anti-communist, pro-democratic semi-legal opposition) as well as members of the Catholic Church (sworn enemies of communism) to the table in order to discuss the future. The very fact that all of these people were able, and wanted, to sit down and together discuss the future of their country was unprecedented on a European, and perhaps even global, scale.

Forces of Good
The members of the Solidarity opposition who sat at the Round Table (and in later years became key figures in Polish politics) included: Lech Wałęsa (leader of Solidarity), Bronisław Geremek (chief consultant to Lech Wałęsa), Tadeusz Mazowiecki (editor-in-chief of the weekly Solidarność), Jacek Kuroń (Solidarity advisor and founder of the Workers’ Defence Committee), Adam Michnik (Solidarity advisor and Workers’ Defence Committee member) and Lech Kaczyński (Solidarity advisor).

Forces of Evil
The governmental side at the Round Table included: General Czesław Kiszczak (member of the Politbiuro and Minister of Internal Affairs), Leszek Miller (member of the Central Committee of the Party) and Aleksander Kwaśniewski (Minister for Young People).  The infamous General Kiszczak is said to have played a fundamentally positive role in the talks. Leszek Miller and Aleksander Kwaśniewski, perhaps not huge players at the time, were set for dazzling careers in Polish politics in the years to come.

Wałęsa at the Table

Wałęsa at the Table

The talks were pivotal in the fact that they saw the bitterest of enemies sit down and constructively discuss the future of a nation on the brink of economic and social collapse. As a result, Solidarity gained a tangible foothold in Eastern European politics and led to the disintegration of communism throughout Europe. The Round Table not only began the erosion of communism within Europe, but the participants (including the much-maligned communists) actively worked towards the dismantling of a totalitarian regime that they realised no longer had a future.

Round Table Careers
The political legacy of the talks can still be felt today. Beginning with the Solidarity side, Lech Wałęsa went on to become President of Poland, Bronisław Geremek was Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tadeusz Mazowiecki was Poland’s first post-war democratically-elected Prime Minister, Jacek Kuroń became Minister of Labour and Social Policy, Adam Michnik founded Poland’s first post-war free newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and Lech Kaczyński is currently President of Poland. As for the communists, Leszek Miller became Polish Prime Minster whereas Aleksander Kwaśniewski was President of Poland. Three Presidents, two Prime Ministers and a host of ministers is quite a legacy.


Jaruzelski the Traitor?

December 15, 2008
The General

The General

News that Jaruzelski was ready to open Poland’s borders and let in the Soviet army comes as a shock to some but to many more it is not surprising. For them, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, last head (and President) of the (communist) People’s Republic of Poland was a traitor in every sense of the word. News of Jaruzelski’s so-called treachery comes after the CIA decided to release classified cold war documents telling of Jaruzelski’s plans during the 1980-81 period.

Top Secret
The documents totalling over a thousand pages, published by the CIA, are detailed reports prepared by Colonel Ryszard Kukliński, a close aide of Jaruzelski, who clandestinely worked for the CIA between 1971 and 1981 passing important military information over to the Americans. As well as countering the planned Warsaw Pact invasion of western Europe and what would have been the start of World War III by allowing NATO to be one step ahead of the Warsaw Pact, Kukliński also supplied the Americans with a detailed psychological profile of General Wojciech Jaruzelski.

The Generals

The Generals

Power Hungry
In his reports, Kukliński claims that Jaruzelski had impeccable morals, shied away from the luxuries craved by most  communist leaders and was incredibly polite and well-spoken. However, his lust for power and fear/respect for the Soviet Union was inevitably his undoing. The CIA reports claim that Jaruzelski had been preparing to enforce martial law (December 1981) for a long time before it was actually imposed and it was in no way motivated by the threat of a Soviet invasion which Jaruzelski has claimed for years. Moreover, the General had pleaded with the Russians for military assistance which the Soviets rejected.

Soviet Invasion
In fact, what comes as the greatest surprise is the fact that the Soviets were very close to invading Poland not in 1981 but in 1980, a full year before martial law was imposed. The Soviet regime were irked with Solidarity’s growing power and influence. They feared that the Solidarity movement could well sweep through the Polish military, government and, even worse, the Party itself. They had already begun moving heavy arms into Poland. Russian troops stationed within Poland were known to be regularly performing military manoeuvres and several armed divisions had been re-stationed around the vicinities of Warsaw, ready to take the capital.

American Rescue
It seems that Kukliński’s report averted the danger as the American government, knowing the full scale of the imminent invasion which would have de facto reduced Poland to S.S.R. status, put immense pressure on the Soviet regime to not attempt an invasion of Poland as any such invasion would lead to the USA declaring war on the USSR. Kukliński appears to have saved the day. Wojciech Jaruzelski, however, may have ran out of arguments justifying his imposition of martial law. The Russians have stated on numerous occasions that they never had any intention of invading Poland in the winter of 1981 (when martial law was imposed). This CIA report seems to have put yet another nail in his coffin.

Vetting? What Vetting?

May 11, 2007

Poland in crisis?I have specifically, in premeditated fashion, avoided making any entries on my blog this week in order to avoid becoming too embroiled in the political crisis that has been unfolding around the ruling of Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal concerning the constitutional nature of the much-maligned Vetting Act.

Now that all the hoohah’s finally come to a (judicial and legislative) end, I have decided to comment on the bizarre goings-on. It all started when parliament, including ruling coalition and the majority of opposition Civic Platform (PO) MPs, decided to pass an amendment to the (anti-communist) Vetting Act which widened its jurisdiction to encompass, amongst others, journalists and academics who might have collaborated with the Communist Secret Police (SB).

The ramifications of the new Act became apparent to all and it meant that those touched by the Act would have had to submit vetting declarations to the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) in order to obtain a certificate of ‘moral health’. In practical terms, this meant that almost a quarter of a million (!) people would have had to submit these declarations and then have to wait for the IPN to verify them. By all accounts, the IPN would have been hard pressed, working flat out, to get through all of these declarations in little over ten (!) years.

In real terms, this puts a shadow over Poland’s ability to deal with its communist past. All the former communist states, seem to have dealt with their shady history by simply opening up their archives to all. The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party have been fighting tooth and nail to prevent this from happening and many believe the archives of the IPN are in their hands and are being used for political ends.

To illustrate the political machinations of PiS let us look at the week’s events. The deadline by which all vetting declarations were to be made was May 15th. The Constitutional Tribunal, as the primary authority responsible for ruling on questions of the constitutional (i.e. legal) nature of legislation, promised to rule on whether the Vetting Act is in accordance with the Constitution by the 11th May for the good of the people, so that the quarter of a million people affected (and confused) by it would know whether or not to submit these declarations.

Ludwik Dorn, Speaker of the House (and therefore supposedly objective) called for the Constitutional Tribunal to not rule on whether the Vetting Act was in accordance with the Constitution so soon. No clear reasons were given. After the Tribunal ignored his pleas, PiS played their ace card and submitted a petition stating that information on two of the judges of the Constitutional Tribunal had been found in the archives of the IPN; the idea being that they collaborated with the Secret Police. When pressed by the Tribunal, the PiS MP responsible for the petition crumbled but a shadow of doubt was cast on these two judges who had to be suspended for the time of this ruling. An hour later, their IPN files were found to be cleaner than clean. How the PiS MP got his hands on these files so quickly is still a mystery to many.

Even with the loss of two judges, the Tribunal was able to conclude their ruling and as the black clouds thickened and the heavens opened above Warsaw the judges declared that nearly half of the regulations in the Vetting Act were not in accordance with the Constitution. President Kaczyński and PM Kaczyński were quick to point out their displeasure. However, in all of this it has become apparent that this is more than just a battle for the realisation of one party’s vision of vetting but a power struggle on the future of Poland’s legislative system.

The Polish Church vis-a-vis Communism

January 7, 2007

WielgusIt’s been in all the papers, everyone in Poland seems to be talking about this scandal. Let’s try and put it in context and look at what’s been going on. Archbishop Stanisław Wielgus was nominated Archbishop of Warsaw by Pope Benedict XVI. In the days following his nomination, information started leaking out of Poland`s Institute of National Remembrance that Wielgus may have collaborated with the communist Secret Police by providing them with information about the Church. Yes, the whole thing stinks and, once again, the Catholic Church has got itself into a real quagmire. It’s difficult to see how on earth they’re going to pull themselves out of this one this time, but the last minute resignation of Archbishop Stanisław Wielgus an hour before his official installation seemed to – to some extent – save the day.

Basically, we’re dealing with two problems here. Firstly, the fact that Wielgus collaborated with the Secret Police. Secondly, the fact that Archbishop Wielgus lied about his collaboration with the Secret Police on several occasions.

The first problem also needs to be put in context. What is understood commonly as collaboration should in no way be termed as ‘spying’ as it has been in all the Western newspapers. It is not the same. Archbishop Wielgus signed a document saying that he would collaborate with the Secret Police, however, there is little evidence to suggest that he hurt anyone or put the Church or his flock at danger. There are no witnesses that saw him ‘spying’. As far as we know, Wielgus (like tens of thousands of other people) agreed to sign the document to live what we now might call a normal life – receive a passport, be able to leave the country and have an academic career. This was the reality of life in communist Poland. If you were a member of the Party or if you signed the appropriate document, you could have the things that so many of us nowadays take for granted. In defence of the Church, it needs to be said here that over 95% of the clergy did not collaborate.

Now to the second issue. The fact that Wielgus lied about signing this document is scandalous and casts a dark shadow over his character which until now has been whiter than white. But hats off here to Cardinal Józef Glemp, head of the Polish Catholic Church – someone who is not the most charismatic, endearing or lovable character in the world. In his homily during the Mass which was supposed to mark the installation of Wielgus he talked of the categories that the Holy Church use in their selection of the clergy being different from those we might commonly believe to be important. For the Church, he stated, the love of Jesus Christ is the overriding criterion. He mentioned Saint Peter and the fact he was a bit of a dodgy character who lied, denied Christ several times, but was selected to head the Church because of his love of Christ.

The Polish Church is without doubt far too powerful, it loves sticking its nose into politics and often lacks the empathy that should in fact characterise it. Many of the clergy are corrupt, have dubious ‘relations’ (and relationships) with members of their flock and generally should take a good look at themselves. The Polish Church is divided between those who are liberal and open and those who are conservative and loathe change. However, one cannot help feeling that Archbishop Wielgus is an unfortunate victim of the media circus. The next few days will be critical. Will the Church decide to clean up its act or will it simply forgive and forget…

Stasi Chief Faithful to Former Masters

November 12, 2006

Markus WolfThis week former uber-spy and Communist espionage genius, famed as the “Man with no Face” and the man believed to be the character behind “Karla” in John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, died. Ironically Markus Wolf passed away quietly in his sleep on… get this… the 17th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, the 9th November. How appropriate.

I’m sure many of us know the ins and outs of this guy’s biography. He was very powerful and very influential. He had a hotline to Moscow and could pick up the phone anytime and speak to Andropov or any other of the party faithful. He had a monumentally large network of spies working for him, estimated at around 4,000.

What I find interesting is a short interview the guy did for Polish TVN. Messieurs Morozowski and Sekielski, two well-known Polish reporters, decided to talk to the guy whose name made most people quiver in the ‘good ole days’ of the Cold War. The interesting part about it was not the topic of discussion – Wolf flatly denied the KGB having any knowledge of the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II and maintained it to be the work of only Ali Agca and the Bulgarian secret service – but rather the manner in which the interview was undertaken, or rather the language of the interview. Morozowski and Sekielski asked their questions in Polish. An interpreter then relayed the questions directly to Wolf in German. However, Wolf then decided to answer the questions in… Russian. Elegant and fluent Russian. Not German, not English, but in Russian.

Was he trying to give the Polish interviewers the middle finger or was he making a blatant show of allegiance to his former masters (Wolf and his family lived in Moscow from the 1930s and only returned after the WWII to cover the Nuremberg trials)? Whatever it was he was attempting to do, it was still one of the oddest interviews I have ever seen.

Most people believe that the KGB were behind the assassination attempt on PJPII and most experts agree that Wolf was one of the best liars the world has ever seen. Perhaps a career in politics might have been more satisfying? But the blatant choice of using Russian in an interview has so many overtones for Polish people that I hardly know where to begin. Anyway, more interesting Cold War info can be gleaned from an interesting link to the Stasi Record Office and also the Polish Institute of National Remembrance.