The leader of the Polish peace and trade union movement Solidarność from 1980 on populism, Putin and protest.
taz on the weekend: Mr. Wałęsa, If you compare the current protests in Belarus with those in Poland 40 years ago, do you see any differences or rather similarities?
Lech Walesa: Belarus is currently where we were in the 1970s. At that time we lost the big strike in the Gdańsk shipyard because we weren’t sure what we wanted. Experience taught us that we had to prepare very well for the revolution. We needed trustworthy experts at key points in the state, a realistic program and perseverance. The opposition movement in Belarus is currently acting very spontaneously, without a powerful structure and without an at least medium-term program.
Think of the structure of a free union – like Solidarność 1980?
Not necessarily. The situation in Belarus is different than it was back then. There the elections were so brazenly rigged that “the street” protested and demanded freedom and democracy. It all started with strikes against the poor working conditions. A union as a structure for the opposition was therefore an obvious choice. The Belarusians have to find their own structure.
Does Belarus have a chance at all to free itself from the poor of Russia?
I am a practitioner, politician and revolutionary, not a theorist. It’s like this: at some point Russia will have to come to terms with the rest of Europe. The time of nation states and wars is over. Today we face very different challenges than we did a century ago. No state solves global problems alone.
40 years ago The freedom and trade union movement Solidarność was founded in Gdansk. It was the first independent union in what was then the Eastern Bloc. At that time, the electrician Lech Wałęsa was at its head. His workplace was the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk.
After a setback In December 1981, when General Wojciech Jaruzelski proclaimed martial law, arrested thousands of opposition members and banned Solidarność, Poland became the first Eastern bloc country to hold free elections in 1989. Months later, the Berlin Wall fell.
From 1990 to 1995 Lech Wałęsa was President of Poland. Wałęsa is now 77 years old.
Ukraine, which began its freedom struggle more or less at the same time as Poland, is neither in the EU nor in NATO today. Did she miss her historic opportunity?
When I was President of Poland, I pursued the concept of joining NATO and the EU together – first Poland and the other Central European countries, then the Baltic republics and finally Ukraine and Belarus. But then I lost the election and didn’t have a second term. At that time the Soviet Union disintegrated. So it could have worked. I had already arranged everything, but without making a big announcement. Ukraine has not missed its historic opportunity, but is taking a different path. If the EU could supply Ukraine and Belarus with electricity, gas and oil, the two countries would be less dependent on Russia and would have more room for maneuver. But the EU is currently unable to do this.
But you still managed to negotiate the withdrawal of Soviet soldiers from Poland. How did that happen?
Don’t forget the Berlin Wall! It wouldn’t have happened without our preparatory work. The Soviet Union was then very weak and could no longer compete with the capitalist countries. At the same time, many bright minds – Polish, Russian, Lithuanian – had already studied at elite universities in the USA and also in Western Europe. They realized that the communist economic system was nowhere working, and so the Soviet politicians were no longer willing to defend the previous system. In negotiations I succeeded in getting the Soviet soldiers to withdraw from Poland in a completely peaceful manner.
And today? Do you have any advice for the opposition in Belarus?
Giving advice from outside is very difficult. You have to be on site, grasp the situation with heart and mind, sometimes speed ahead, sometimes back down and always stay in dialogue with the other side. I will be careful not to give any specific advice. But doing something against Russia is probably not recommended at the moment. Putin would not allow that. The opposition, on the other hand, could easily initiate smaller political projects and gain valuable experience.
With or without the European Union?
The EU is very weak today. There are too many antagonistic forces within the EU. It would be good if the Germans, French and Italians either reformed the EU from within or – after it had previously been destroyed by Great Britain, Poland, Hungary and the like – founded it again. As before, everyone should be able to join, including those states that previously wanted to get out. However, they would have to sign a very clear catalog of rights and obligations, compliance with which should then be strictly monitored. The farce surrounding the violation of the rule of law in Poland and Hungary and its punishment by the EU is just plain embarrassing. The Germans should finally stand by their responsibility and turn the political dwarf EU into a giant that has a say in world politics. In its current constitution, I fear the EU cannot help Belarus or Ukraine.
This text comes from the taz on the weekend. Always from Saturday at the kiosk, in the eKiosk or with a practical weekend subscription. And around the clock on Facebook and Twitter.
Are you demanding a leadership role for Germany in the EU despite the Second World War?
We are in a different era today, we are no longer waging wars, but are partners who trust each other. You know, I also lost my father in the war, and as a young man I was full of anger towards the Germans until I realized that times have changed. We Poles paid a high price, but we have to look to the future. We don’t solve global problems alone. No state does that. So we need a strong EU. The Germans should finally get to work.
For a year or two you have been wearing a T-shirt in public that says “Constitution”! Is Poland’s legal system so bad?
More and more people are falling for populists not only in Poland, but worldwide. Even in the US. The problem is: the populists’ analyzes are often correct, but their solutions are fatal. Instead of doing better than their predecessors, they destroy the previous legal system and democracy. When I was president, I was very annoyed by the judgments of some judges, but unlike the currently ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), I never tried to destroy Poland’s courts. Without respect for the constitution, the tripartite division of power and the free press, every populist country degenerates into a dictatorship. In Poland and everywhere.
The current ruling PiS is trying to eliminate you from the history of Poland and either keep silent or even replace you with another person. Does that hurt you?
Oh no. It just goes to show that I have my place in history. I feel this partly hysterical fight against me as a kind of appreciation. They can’t stand the fact that I achieved something as a simple electrician, while as a student they remained extras. They attach me to being a communist agent. Haha what a joke!
What is your balance sheet – 40 years after Solidarność
-Registration! What are you happy about to this day?
The Solidarność revolution was not about me, but about the freedom and sovereignty of Poland, including the reunification of Germany. I succeeded. And I’m very happy about that.