Twenty Years On

When the celebrations marking the anniversary of the June 4, 1989 Polish parliamentary election are held in Krakow this month, political distractions should not obscure the fact that ending communist control in a European country for the first time since the end of the Second World War was an unprecedented achievement. It opened the door for the rest of the Soviet Bloc. The end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the “reunification of Europe” would all have been unthinkable without the momentous Polish election.

CNN is working on a series about 1989 titled “Autumn of Change,” and that’s significant because, even in southern Poland, early June is hardly autumn. A promotional spot prepared by the EU accentuated the autumnal aspect, as well – the opening of the border between East and West Germany on November 9, 1989 provides the visual leitmotif. The Polish foreign ministry and the country’s ambassador to the EU promptly protested about the marginalisation of Polish events.

Yet it seems inevitable that the attention of the world media will climax only in November, and that archival footage of Germans taking hammers to the ugly wall and driving their cute Trabant cars through the Brandenburg gate will dominate screens around the world.

On June 4, months ahead of the big hoopla, Krakow will be the centre of a less photogenic and probably less-ballyhooed celebration, but the Berlin happening would not have been possible without what happened in Poland twenty years ago this spring.

On that day, after a winter of negotiations between the government and the opposition, Poles voted to elect what has since come to be known as the “Contract Sejm.” The Sejm is the lower house of the Polish parliament, and the Contract was signed on 5 April at the end of the Round Table Talks – two months of public deliberations between large teams of pro-Solidarity and Communist Party politicians and expert advisers.

The Contract envisioned elections for all 100 seats of the Polish senate, an institution that the communists had abolished immediately after the war when Soviet troops ended the German Nazi occupation of Poland and, under the terms of the Yalta pact agreed by Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill, incorporated Poland into Moscow’s sphere of influence.

The 1989 Contract also provided for the unrestricted election of 35 percent of the Sejm, the lower house of the legislature. The other 65 percent was reserved for the communists, who had exercised total power for over 40 years. Never before in the communist bloc had the electorate experienced even such a significant degree of freedom, partial though it was.

When the election results came in, they were staggering. Not that anyone had ever thought the communists enjoyed much genuine support, but Polish voters repudiated them completely, with the pro-Solidarity bloc, endorsed by the Union’s charismatic leader Lech Wałęsa, sweeping 99 out of the 100 senate seats (an independent agro-businessman with unlimited campaign funds won the other), and every single one of the available 35 percent of the seats in the lower house.

Despite the fact that the “Contract” – many remarked on its similarities to the kinds of deals more familiar from mafia movies – left the communists with a majority, the game was up.

The Contract had also provided for press freedom, and there was no way to gloss over the fact that the election had stripped the communists of any pretense of legitimacy. As soon as the results came in, the New York Times quoted the regime’s press spokesman as conceding that “The elections were of a plebiscite character, and Solidarity has achieved a decisive majority.”

Bronisław Geremek, the chief Solidarity adviser who died in a car accident in 2008, said just after the elections that “when the system of rule changes, when the heritage of the Stalinist system and the communists’ right to appoint leaders falls, room will be created for new political solutions. But this is not a matter for today or tomorrow.”

As it turned out, change came more quickly than Geremek or anyone else envisioned at the time. Before the summer was over, the communists gave up on trying to form a government and a Solidarity-led coalition took power with the Catholic intellectual Tadeusz Mazowiecki as prime minister.

Without a shot being fired, without mass demonstrations and in fact without much of a sense of excitement at all, communist rule had ended in a Soviet-bloc country. It seemed unimaginable at the time, but the Cold War had effectively ended overnight.

In a landmark speech to the United Nations the previous autumn, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had renounced the Brezhnev Doctrine, which kept the “fraternal socialist countries” in line by threatening to invade them if they tried to change their political system.

Gorbachev was facing up to the fact that his own basket-case economy needed radical reform (which he would never manage to deliver) and that its central European satellites were more of a liability than an asset, especially because the Soviets had to supply them with oil and natural gas.

In a sign that Soviet strategists were finally shaking off their World War II hangover, they also realized that any future would-be conqueror of Mother Russia was far more likely to try to pull off the job in half an hour with a salvo of intercontinental nuclear missiles than by driving tanks across half of Europe as Hitler had done. The rationale for the expensive Eastern Bloc “glacis” was gone.

So Gorbachev had opened the door, but it took the Poles to work up the courage and cut the deal — the “Contract” – that allowed them to walk through, into the unknown and into the future that gave us the world we know today.

In fact, Polish oppositionists had been working constantly for change since the glum, repressive Brezhnev era. They acted boldly, signing their names to their declarations, and wisely, turning down increasingly desperate government pleas to “share responsibility” by endorsing half-hearted reforms that would have left the decrepit official power structure in place. Underground political movements, think tanks, and a diverse unofficial press thrived. This grass-roots movement was powerful, ready, and eager to step up to the plate when Gorbachev finally relaxed the Soviet grip.

It cannot be emphasized enough that the changes of the last 20 years were inconceivable before June 4, 1989. Poles had always castigated themselves for relying on miracles, but a miracle would seem to have happened.

What came next was a chain reaction, as one Warsaw Pact country after another followed suit. Hungary made a move towards autonomy, but only in October 1989, with its own version of the Round Table. Later came the Czechs, and the year concluded with the bloodbath that ended the cruel reign of Romania’s Ceauşescu.

Along the way, on November 9, the East Germans let the Trabants roll through the gap in the Berlin wall. They did so in a moment of distraction, because it remains unclear who, if anyone, gave the order. By that time, the world media had realized that Europe really was changing, and the TV cameras were ready to capture those images that have since become iconic, and that we will surely see a thousand times in the build-up to the big media event this coming November.

In the longer perspective, the fall of the Berlin Wall was not so much a spontaneous outburst of freedom as a surrender to the inevitable. It was one of the last in a chain of collapsing dominoes. The first domino fell in Poland, and that is what the ceremonies in Krakow on 4 June will be celebrating.

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