Providing for Independence in the New Third Polish Republic

An interview with Professor Antoni Dudek

Antoni Dudek is a professor of political science at the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw. In his interview with MHP he discusses the momentous political changes in Poland after 1989, that resulted in setting foundations for the Third Polish Republic and consequences that remain in our day.

Antoni Dudek, expert in the contemporary Polish history. He recently published book about first Polish cabinets after 1989, Od Mazowieckiego do Suchockiej. Pierwsze rządy wolnej Polski (photo by Cezary Piwowarski; CC BY-SA 4.0)

Polishhistory: On 12 September 1989, the government led by Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first non-Communist prime minister since the end of the Second World War, was formed in Poland. How important was this event?

Antoni Dudek: Extremely important – after the Polish Round Table Talks between the Communist government and the opposition and the first semi-free elections in June 1989, we can consider that as the next stage in the destruction of the system of real socialism. This process was not over yet, but a precedent was set, because the head of government was a non-Communist. Although the government was composed of representatives of the Polish United Workers’ Party and its former allied parties, as many as 12 of 24 ministers were appointed from the representatives of Solidarity, which was the recently illegal anti-Communist opposition. This is absolutely extraordinary. In this way, a government of the transition period was created, which in Polish conditions would last until the first fully democratic elections 27 October 1991. At that time, the sovereign Third Republic would be born.

The Mazowiecki government not only removed the Communists from power in a symbolic way, but also had the role of determining the political foundations of the new state.

Indeed, it succeeded in many areas. Paradoxically, changes in those spheres turned out to be the most durable, to which at first glance we pay the least attention. Let’s look at the justice system: no other structure built by the Mazowiecki government survived so long – it survived almost unchanged to any significant extent, in practice until 2015.

But the Mazowiecki government is most remembered for economic reform.

Since it was also very radical, it fundamentally plowed the Polish economy through, though many modifications were later introduced to those economic solutions. Meanwhile, while the organizational structure of the judiciary lasted for a quarter of a century, the decisions of Deputy Prime Minister Leszek Balcerowicz were changed many times, although the direction of economic changes he established is in fact continued to this day.

Tadeusz Mazowiecki, November 1989; photo by Artur Klose; CC BY-SA 2.0

Decisions of the Mazowiecki government in the field of foreign policy were also of fundamental importance.

It was the first government to begin the process of strategic political reorientation. He did not manage to lead Poland out of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance or the Warsaw Pact, but it was at the turn of 1989 and 1990 that the first steps towards Poland’s agreement with the West were taken, which would find its epilogue in joining NATO and the European Union. At that time, contact with the US was established, both at the official inter-state level and at the level of special services. This was followed by an agreement with the International Monetary Fund and then with the European Economic Community on the subject of association, which the Mazowiecki government began and its successors finalized. At the same time, there is a very cautious but consistent separation from the East. This gives us an accurate picture of what the Mazowiecki government changed: in economic and foreign policy, and in state administration, new directions had been adopted.

In September 1989, Poland is the regional leader of change, but after a few months, by the beginning of 1990, things are different. The Berlin Wall collapsed, the Communist Party in Hungary dissolved, and Václav Havel became the Czechoslovak president. Why did changes in Poland slow down?

This is primarily a consequence of the existence of the team of Mazowiecki and [former communist Party chief] Wojciech Jaruzelski. What is even more interesting, the most consistent brake here was Solidarity Prime Minister Mazowiecki, who was terribly afraid of the “recidivism of the old system’s forces”. The main guarantee that this recidivism would not occur was for him the post-Communist era president, Wojciech Jaruzelski. The latter quite quickly declared his readiness to leave the post, but the prime minister slowed him down, which was seriously affected by the growing conflict between Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Solidarity head Lech Wałęsa. Finally, Mazowiecki was terribly afraid that Poland would be left alone facing a united Germany, with no guarantees about our western border. All this meant that Mazowiecki was very afraid of radical political changes.

Meanwhile, economic reforms that had been introduced were very serious.

Mazowiecki was not well versed in economic details, but understood that the social costs were going to be very serious. Hence his reluctance to touch any other political issues, for example  de-communization activities. This action was by no means pointless – after all, Poland was, among all post-Communist countries, in the worst economic situation, in fact it was bankrupt. In the months that followed in 1990, however, Mazowiecki became more willing to introduce changes, especially under the influence of Wałęsa’s pressure and public opinion in the second half of 1990.

President George H. W. Bush meets privately with Solidarity Leader Lech Wałęsa of Poland in the residence; Photographer David Valdez; (NARA record: 4097323; public domain)

But did the head of government alone decide on the pace of change?

Certainly, once he decided on a more radical move, it was simply followed. An example would be the case of the property of RSW “Prasa-Książka-Ruch”, literally the Workers’ Publishing Cooperative, abbreviated as the RSW “Press-Book-Movement”, a huge printing and media group, controlled for years by the Polish United Workers’ Party. Post-Communists wanted, in the majesty of the law, to consolidate their control over this rich enterprise, which sparked Mazowiecki into a rage. At his request, a draft bill on the nationalization of all RSW assets was prepared over a single weekend and the Sejm (parliament) immediately passed it. So when he wanted, Mazowiecki could be dynamic.

Lech Wałęsa, the legendary leader of Solidarity and a charismatic political figure – why did he exert pressure on a government that could not have been created without his support?

The conflict between Mazowiecki and Wałęsa began right after the creation of the new government, because Wałęsa quickly felt separated, deprived of any influence on the course of political events. And until the end of 1989, it had seemed that the time had yet to come for his dreams of the presidency to come true. But when Nicolae Ceaușescu was overthrown in Romania and Václav Havel became the head of state in Prague, Wałęsa understood that political changes could go much further and Wojciech Jaruzelski should leave his position. Tadeusz Mazowiecki did not want this, fearing Wałęsa’s ambition. If both politicians could have agreed, history may have turned out differently. But the prime minister’s milieu was one of the first into which landed the myth of a charismatic folk leader and a celebrated hero.

Wałęsa in 1980 and Wałęsa in 1990 – was it still just as strong of a political myth?

Oh, much stronger, in the latter case. Social moods were absolutely clear in this respect: Wałęsa was by far the most popular politician in Poland, and therefore in the autumn of 1990 he won the general presidential election. But also the majority of Poles knew Wałęsa from the shiniest side: as a man adored by the greats of this world, who speaks before the US Congress, who is a living symbol of the fall of communism in the entire region of Eastern Europe. However, it was less apparent that he had no competence to hold any office, especially the office of the head of state. It is unlikely that Wałęsa read the constitution at all before becoming president. This is demonstrated, for example, by his ideas from 1991, when he proposed that he would be both president and prime minister. This does not change the fact that Mazowiecki’s camp made a fatal mistake by simply pushing Wałęsa away, because he then became like a pavement roller running over the prime minister.

But Wałęsa did not treat all ministers that way. Many of them, with Leszek Balcerowicz at the forefront, did a great job in the next Polish cabinet, founded in January 1991 with Jan Krzysztof Bielecki as prime minister.

What is more, it is difficult to indicate further significant differences between the policies of Mazowiecki and Bielecki, with perhaps two more important exceptions. Bielecki’s government raised much more strongly the issue of the presence of Soviet troops in Poland, and vigorously opposed the creation of the so-called CMEA-bis, an economic organization under the leadership of the Soviet Union. The Mazowiecki government, trying to disentangle itself from membership in the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, had been in favour of establishing the so-called Organization for Economic Cooperation, which was to bring together European countries of the former Soviet bloc. Poland, not wanting to annoy the Kremlin, initially expressed interest in this project, while Czechoslovakia and, especially, Hungary were categorically opposed to it. That idea was suppressed in early 1991.

Regarding other policies, they were simply continued and carried on. The same people led international politics; with the economy, it was similar. It is not enough, however, that Deputy Prime Minister Balcerowicz was the only deputy prime minister in that office, but Bielecki became prime minister only because Balcerowicz categorically refused to take up that function, wanting instead to focus entirely on the economy. There was no breakthrough in the sphere of internal politics: neither de-communization nor lustration was implemented.

The latter must have been a considerable disappointment for radicals supporting Wałęsa, who hoped for the “acceleration” he promised.

Indeed, Wałęsa was content to take over Jaruzelski’s place – he was not planning any major changes. It was then that he became subject to attacks associated with his cooperation with the security services [Służba Bezpieczeństwa, the Communist-era intelligence agency] in the 1970s. Attempts were made to create the impression that Wałęsa had deceived the nation, that it was still under the control of people from the old system who were thwarting broader changes.

Belweder Palace, an official residence of the Polish president (1989-1993); photo by Bartosz Morąg, CC-BY-3.0

So why did Wałęsa stop at declarations?

Some offer a simple answer: because he was blackmailed with the record book purported to show that Wałęsa, codenamed Bolek, had been an operative for the security services from 1970 to 1976. But I think the case is much more complex. In my opinion, Wałęsa did not permit himself to be blackmailed with the mid-1970s issue, but as president he simply wanted to rule and not have trouble. Since he took power, and representatives of the military began to pay him honours and flatter him, why should he throw them out? All the more so since there weren’t other candidates for their positions. What’s more, cooperation between Bielecki and Wałęsa was great, largely because the former accepted the latter’s political primacy without reservation. This then enhanced the conviction on the part of the president that he is at the head of the prime minister, who carries out his instructions. It was only when Jan Olszewski’s government was formed that this situation became unsustainable.

Bielecki’s government lasted until autumn 1991, when the first fully democratic elections finally took place. Why did that happen so late?

Bielecki’s government was intended to be a transitional cabinet for elections that were planned for at least six months. However, the president’s dispute with the Sejm about the shape of electoral law caused all that to be prolonged. Of course, Wałęsa – coming off of general elections – was comfortable confronting the Sejm, elected in an undemocratic way in June 1989, but it was also clear to everyone that this situation would not last forever. When elections took place on 27 October 1991, the voter turnout turned out to be surprisingly low (just above 43 percent), which, moreover, indicated the scale of social disenchantment after reforming the Balcerowicz Plan, the plan for transferring the Polish economy from state owned and centrally planned to capitalism,  after a year and a half.

Jan Olszewski in Sejm, December 1991; PAP/I. Radkiewicz

The effect of the first free elections in the Third Republic was a massively fragmented parliament, with 24 parties, of which the strongest, the Democratic Union (Unia Demokratyczna), had only 62 deputies (in a Sejm of 460 members). The cards would be dealt by the president.

It seemed so, but Jan Olszewski appeared unexpectedly and he won at the beginning of December 1991 and was nominated prime minister. As a result of Wałęsa’s unfavourable attitude, declaring that he would not cooperate with such a prime minister, Olszewski resigned, but the Sejm rejected this.

And so the government of Jan Olszewski was formed and from the beginning was in conflict with Wałęsa.

Olszewski’s only chance was in building a majority coalition, but the prime minister saw things differently himself. He believed that he did not have to build a coalition, because the cabinet he created was irreplaceable, therefore if he fell, there would have to be early elections, which MPs would not risk. However, by May 1992 it was already clear that this government had no chance of continuing to function. It was just looking for an excuse to collapse with a bang.

Is that how to look at the famous “night of the files” on 4–5 June 1992 when lustration began, files were opened and information about secret collaborators of the security services who were holding the highest state functions was published, leading to crisis?

In fact, yes – especially since the legend of Jan Olszewski’s government that has been built over the years has little to do with reality. It was not a government of any major changes; the state machine set in motion by the Mazowiecki and Bielecki governments continued to move along the same tracks. Apart from words that were said at the time, it is difficult to find any specific change in the sphere of activities. It is not true, for example, that it was the Olszewski government that spoke openly for the first time about Polish aspirations to NATO – the first had been Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, in September 1991. Anyway, when Olszewski went to the US in April 1992, his pro-NATO declarations were not important to anyone, as his hosts were aware that his government could collapse any moment.

Hanna Suchocka, Prime Minister of Poland, 1992-1993 (public domain)

The last government that managed to form from political forces derived from Solidarity was the government of Hanna Suchocka, formed in the summer of 1992.

It was, to a large extent, another government of continuation, which, if it tried to cut itself off from something, it was rather from the heritage of the Olszewski government, and that rather in the verbal sphere. However, it was the last government in which attempts were made to recreate a broad agreement between post-Solidarity groups – apart from the Centre Agreement (Porozumienie Centrum), the party of Jarosław Kaczyński. That government made several sensible system changes, including the introduction of VAT, which proved to be a major success.

Did Lech Wałęsa play a decisive role in the destruction of the last Solidarity government?

The president at that time was not directly at odds with this government, one cannot speak of war, as had been the case with the Olszewski government. Wałęsa, however, disliked that government being too independent of him. He was of the opinion that Poland needed a presidential system, and he believed that if he dissolved the parliament, the party elected under his auspices would win the next elections. In other words, he still believed most in his popularity from late 1990 and, as it turned out, was very wrong. His Nonpartisan Bloc for Support of Reforms (Bezpartyjny Blok Wspierania Reform, or BBWR) in the 1993 election won only 16 seats.

In this paradoxical manner, Wałęsa paved the way to power for post-Communists.

That certainly wasn’t conscious, but it did happen. Poles were tired of the economic situation and disappointed at the level of Solidarity elites. All this caused an increase in sympathy for post-Communist parties. After all, one other factor was decisive: the Solidarity camp was in fatal disagreement with itself: 35 percent of votes cast for fractured post-Solidarity parties were lost, because those did not make it past the electoral threshold. The winners in 1993 – the post-Communist Democratic Left Alliance and the Polish People’s Party – reached about 21 percent and about 16 percent, respectively, of the votes. United post-Solidarity forces could therefore have maintained power, but that did not happen.

Main Sejm building (photo by Kpalion; CC BY-SA 3.0)

The epilogue of this story happened in the autumn of 1995, when Lech Wałęsa lost the presidential election to post-Communist leader Aleksander Kwaśniewski.

Indeed, since autumn 1993, Wałęsa could only helplessly observe his own falling numbers and the growing support for the left. It is hard to overcome the impression that the Solidarity camp grew completely lost in the fight for power, which it did not necessarily have to lose. However, it turned out to be too divided, disastrously divided. After many years, this is all the more surprising because when it comes to providing for the newly independent Polish Republic, the overall balance of its efforts is positive.

Interviewer: Michał Przeperski
Translation: Alicja Rose & Alan Lockwood