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Poland reflects on Communism's fall

By Oana Lungescu
BBC News, Gdansk

Gdansk shipyard
The Gdansk shipyard was the birthplace of Solidarity in 1980

Twenty years ago, Poland's communist government did something without precedent - it sat down with the banned Solidarity trade union to try to defuse growing social unrest.

What became known as the Round Table Talks led to the first multi-party elections in the Soviet bloc and a stunning victory by Solidarity, led by Lech Walesa, which heralded the collapse of communism across the eastern half of Europe.

The Iron Curtain has gone, but there is a cold curtain of fog over Gdansk, the birthplace of Solidarity, enveloping the city's church steeples and the shipyard's cranes alike.

Gate Number Two at the Gdansk shipyard
Gate Number Two has now become a place for pilgrimage

Gate Number Two, for decades the focus of strikes and celebrations, has now become a place of pilgrimage.

There are Solidarity banners draped over it, in Poland's national colours of white-and-red, next to a crucifix and a large portrait of John Paul II, the Polish-born pope who in the darkest hours told his countrymen: "Be not afraid."

Protest and prayer made for a powerful mix in this deeply Catholic country.

Solidarity was created in 1980, after a shipyard strike over the sharp rise in the price of meat spread across Poland.

Soon, the first free trade union in the communist bloc had 10 million members, one in every four Poles. It survived a military crackdown and years of repression.

By 1989, with growing shortages, prices rising by almost 1,000% and the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev experimenting with reforms, Poland's ruling communists had run out of options.

Compromise talks

Jerzy Urban was the government spokesman 20 years ago. He admits the party had lost the people's trust to continue ruling and did not know how to lead the country out of the economic crisis.

Lech Walesa in his Gdansk office
Lech Walesa is an icon in Poland for his role in toppling communism

"We realised that the we'd lost the competition with the West - in economic, political and military terms - and this political system was in a state of crisis and decline," Mr Urban says.

At the Round Table Talks, Lech Walesa and other Solidarity leaders agreed to sit down with those who had jailed them and killed many of their friends.

"It wasn't pleasant, but it was a necessity," Mr Walesa told me in his spacious office stacked with books and photos.

"We thought one day we'd kick them out. When I sat down, I felt weak so I knew some sort of compromise was needed. But we thought that maybe tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, we will go further."

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Konstanty Gebert, who covered the talks for what was then an underground opposition paper, agrees that nobody had expected that the system would be overthrown just a few months later.

"Each minute was full of events we had never expected," he recalls with an incredulous laugh.

By June, Solidarity would win every seat it could contest in Poland's first multi-party election and begin steering the country to democracy and the free market.

'Young City'

Mr Gebert is now a columnist for Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland's leading daily, whose creation was one of the conditions set by Solidarity at the Round Table Talks.

Excavators clear the rubble on the old Gdansk shipyard site
A multimillion waterfront centre is being built at the old shipyard site

Mr Urban has also done well under capitalism. A publisher, he is one of the country's wealthiest entrepreneurs.

Lech Walesa, the former shipyard electrician awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while Solidarity was still banned, went on to become Poland's first democratically elected president.

But in Gdansk shipyard, now privatised, only a couple of thousand workers remain.

On much of the old shipyard site, excavators are clearing the rubble.

In its place will rise Young City - a multimillion waterfront development complete with a four-star hotel, a huge shopping mall, multiplex cinemas and a European Solidarity Centre.

Terry Selzer, the American managing director of the international property investor BPTO, thinks it is also an opportunity for former shipyard workers.

"There will be plenty of construction jobs here for the next twelve years or more," Mr Selzer told me, as he proudly surveyed the vast site.

Once completed, the project is expected to create more than 10,000 permanent jobs.

'Creeping statism'

But just as many could be lost by May, when two other historic yards, Gdynia and Szczecin, will be sold off, under pressure from the European Union to recover billions in illegal state subsidies.

Jerzy Tabor, a veteran Solidarity member in Gdynia
Jerzy Tabor is concerned about mass job losses at Poland's shipyards

For Jerzy Tabor, a veteran Solidarity member in Gdynia, that is just not fair.

"When the crisis with the banks began, they found incredible amounts of money to rescue the banks," Mr Tabor said in the shipyard's shabby but bustling Solidarity office.

"If we had 10% of what the banks received in England, France and Germany, we could have saved the shipyard industry in Poland."

The global slowdown has dented the credibility of capitalism, and not just in Poland.

So does Leszek Balcerowicz, who as deputy prime minister engineered the country's rapid transition to the free market 20 years ago, fear the state will now claw back some economic power?

"I don't think so, I think the memory's not so short as to be afraid of such a catastrophe," he says.

What Mr Balcerowicz, now an internationally respected economist, does fear is what he calls "creeping statism, which isn't as dramatic like socialism - but may be quite destructive for the longer-term future".

Twenty years since the fall of the old order in Poland, not everyone has come to terms with the new. The free market has made victims even among those who fought for freedom. But there seems to be no turning back.



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SEE ALSO
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Walesa leaves Solidarity movement
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Poland marks Solidarity's birth
31 Aug 05 |  Europe
Analysis: Solidarity's legacy
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Profile: Lech Walesa
25 Nov 04 |  Europe
Poland timeline
18 Jan 12 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Poland
15 Apr 12 |  Country profiles

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