Tuesday, November 3, 2009

20 Years Ago 2: Knights of the Round Table

To start off the series I introduced in this post, I will describe the Round Table Talks that took place in Poland from February 6 to April 4, 1989. Those negotiations led to a semi-free parliamentary election later that year, that ended Communist rule in that country.

While there had been unrest in Poland before 1980, most notably the 1970 food riots that toppled longtime party chief Wladyslaw Gomulka, the Solidarity shipyard strike of 1980 was arguably the most significant challenge to date, against any of the Soviet bloc regimes.

I would argue that the 1980 strike was a larger factor in the demise of the Soviet bloc than the uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, in part because of the public spiritual support, and covert political support, of the new Polish pope, John Paul II.

Looking back from our current vantage point, it's easy to see that, once John Paul had paid his first papal visit to Poland, in June 1979, the jig was up. It would be much more difficult for the Soviet Union to keep that force under control, than it was to suppress the earlier reformist regimes in Budapest and Prague.

In August 1980, shipyard workers in Gdansk, led by electrician Lech Walesa, went on strike, and founded an independent trade union called Solidarity. The Polish government temporarily surrendered, recognizing the validity of Walesa's union.

However, in December 1981, they reneged on that arrangement, imposed martial law on the country, outlawed the union, and imprisoned Walesa and other leaders. Walesa was freed in November 1982.

While the Communist regime did not reverse its 1981 actions, its ability to suppress opposition weakened as the decade went on.

By 1988, the regime, then headed by Wojciech Jaruzelski, realized that it needed to negotiate with Walesa and other opposition leaders. That led to the Round Table Talks. On April 4, 1989, an agreement was reached to again legalize the union, and to allow it to contest some of the parliamentary seats in a general election to be held in June of that year. More on that, later.

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