- The Washington Times - Friday, September 15, 2000

Tonight, a gala dinner at Washington's Union Station will honor Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Gdansk Agreement, a document which paved the way for legalization of Poland's Solidarity labor union and prefigured the peaceful collapse of communism.

Mr. Walesa is an epochal figure, who shaped a country's struggle for sovereignty and freedom; played a central role in the collapse of communism; and established the contours of his country's now vibrant democracy and free market economy. The Gdansk Agreement, signed by Lech Walesa after a protracted nationwide strike paralyzed communist Poland in the summer of 1980, also appropriately deserves commemoration and celebration. The accord was the first legal document in which a communist government was forced to acknowledge and make concessions to independent civil society. The Gdansk Agreement was a basic social contract between the regime and its citizens. While it provided for wage increases, it also contained agreements on the right to independent trade unions, the right to strike, and new press and media freedoms.

Significantly, these far-reaching political concessions were the products of worker demands, shaped by Mr. Walesa and his fellow strikers and not those of the strikers' intellectuals advisers, who had thought them unattainable and had counseled a more limited agreement in the interests of "pragmatism." Yet because Polish workers led by Mr. Walesa, a then obscure shipyard electrician stuck to principles, the Gdansk Agreement represented the first major fissure in the communist edifice. The worker-imposed document sent shock waves throughout the Soviet bloc and created a crisis of confidence within the communist system that eventually led to Mikhail Gorbachev's half-hearted reforms and paved the way for the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself.

The emergence of the massive Solidarity movement also convinced President Reagan that communism not only had to be contained, but that it could be rolled back and inspired bipartisan U.S. support for a broad range of intensified policy initiatives including the National Endowment for Democracy that helped sustain significant democratic civic forces in the Soviet bloc and elsewhere around the world.

It, therefore, is hardly surprising that Polish-Americans, U.S. trade unionists, and the foreign policy community would pay homage to Mr. Walesa and commemorate the 20th anniversary of a landmark event in Polish history. More surprising is how Poland's citizens today regard Mr. Walesa and the Solidarity legacy. While there have been some large commemorative events, today, the Polish public is largely indifferent to or estranged from the Solidarity movement and its heroes.

Despite a dynamic economy with impressive growth rates, many Polish workers today blame Solidarity rather than the bankrupt policies of Poland's communist leaders for the closing of many inefficient former state enterprises. To a new generation of Poles, which has come to adulthood in an atmosphere of freedom, the events of 20, or even 10, years ago are matters of the distant past. Indeed, most Poles are less focused on matters of history, and more on the question, "What have you done for me lately?" In short, they are behaving like the citizens of a normal, market democracy like our own.

Divided and squabbling, Solidarity's past and current leaders are running poorly in the campaign for Poland's presidency. Mr. Walesa is registering 3 percent support in the public opinion samplings, while his successor as head of the Solidarity union, Marian Krzaklewski, is getting 7 percent support. Both are far behind the ex-communist incumbent Aleksandr Kwasniewski, whose tenure has been marked by stability and economic growth.

In recent weeks, Poland's press has focused less on Mr. Walesa's campaign and more on an investigation into longtime allegations that he had once been a secret police informant.

After hearing testimony and reviewing original documents, the court exonerated him and found that there was no evidence to suggest Mr. Walesa had ever been a spy or informant. Indeed, the evidence showed that in the 1980s, as part of the Polish secret service's efforts to discredit Mr. Walesa in the eyes of countrymen and of the West, an elaborate web of forgeries was constructed to portray the Solidarity leader as an informant code-named "Bolek." Documents released through the "lustration" proceeding fully exonerated Mr. Walesa by showing that "Bolek" was a Gdansk informant, now deceased. The proceeding also turned up secret police memoranda from the 1970s attesting to Mr. Walesa's independence and judging him to be a dangerous anti-communist "subversive."

The effort to excavate his past filled Mr. Walesa with indignation and was hardly the best way to honor a national hero. Nevertheless, the proceedings also showed that, at root, the Polish legal system was impartial and the process of "vetting" is not an exercise in Polish-style McCarthyism.

A quest for truth launched by a truly independent judiciary, functioning transparently under the watchful eyes of independent news media, is precisely what Poland's workers sought to enshrine 20 years ago, when Mr. Walesa stole the show as he sat down with a gigantic pen to sign the historic Gdansk Agreement. In this sense, Mr. Walesa's personal vindication before a Polish tribunal became, in fact, a confirmation of his gigantic contribution to freedom and democracy.

Mr. Walesa's epochal contribution to freedom and human dignity richly deserves to be celebrated in Poland and here in the United States. For without the leadership and courage of this great hero, communism might not have peacefully fallen, and the world might be a far different, and far more dangerous, place.

Adrian Karatnycky is president of Freedom House. During the 1980s, he worked for the AFL-CIO and its president, Lane Kirkland, in providing assistance to the Polish Solidarity movement.

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