Three decades after Polish trade union Solidarity rocked the Soviet bloc, the world has yet to come to terms with the end of the Cold War, the movement’s iconic founder Lech Walesa says.
“Solidarity brought to an end a period of division, paving the way for the unification of Germany and of Europe,” Walesa said in an interview in the Baltic port city of Gdansk, where the union was born.
A watershed Aug. 31, 1980, deal between Poland’s regime and strikers at the city’s Lenin shipyard led by electrician Walesa allowed the creation of the first free labor union in the communist bloc.
The authorities backtracked in 1981 and imposed martial law to crush Solidarity, which had snowballed into a movement of 10 million members.
Solidarity was kept alive underground and returned to the spotlight in 1989, negotiating an election deal with the regime and scoring a victory that was to speed the demise of the entire bloc over the next two years.
The problem, Walesa said, is that the world has failed to keep up.
“We still have structures left over from the old days which still need to be reorganized and updated,” he said, pointing to NATO which lacks its Cold War-era Warsaw Pact adversary.
He also cited a system of “capitalism which looks at the money and not the man.”
“As long as we don’t do anything about this, we’ll be working on the basis of an outmoded vision and the world won’t be safe,” he said.
Europeans, meanwhile, need to get their act together once and for all, he said.
“They have to understand that the nation state’s finished. In many fields there’s no France, no Poland, be it ecology, information or the economy,” he said, adding “Every state has a different health service or tax system. That can’t go on!”
“And there’s no Europe without Turkey,” the fervent Catholic said, brushing aside French and German wariness about letting the Muslim nation of 75 million into the 27-nation EU.
Walesa gave up the helm of Solidarity after becoming Poland’s first post-war democratically-elected president in December 1990.
After one term, he lost office to ex-communist Aleksander Kwasniewski in a knife-edge 1995 poll, and saw his popularity wither.
A self-confessed technology geek, Walesa has himself photographed with every guest at his Gdansk-based foundation and posts the pictures on his blog.
Walesa won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 for his non-violent opposition to Poland’s regime, a move he says bolstered Solidarity.
He remains a tireless campaigner.
“There are a huge number of causes to defend,” he said. Among his most recent were Cuban political prisoners and Ukrainian television stations stripped of their operating licenses.
Walesa and Solidarity have long since parted ways.
The union has 700,000 members and mostly focuses on labor issues, but it still plas a role in the political arena and riled Walesa by backing his bugbear, losing conservative candidate Jaroslaw Kaczynski, in this year’s presidential election.
“I identify with the 30th anniversary of the great Solidarity movement that had 10 million members. Today’s union isn’t exactly big,” he said.
Ever-controversial, Walesa is skipping next week’s 30th anniversary events, but he has pledged to be there for the 50th, in 2030.