More than thirty years have passed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which left an enormous economic and political void in Central and Eastern Europe. In this series of articles, we explore the responses of the countries of the region to the new circumstances: how they could adapt to capitalism, how successful their democratization was, and what lessons they can learn from each other. We focus on Poland in Part VI.
The waves leading to political and economic changes in Central and Eastern Europe started in Poland. It was here first that the regime must cooperate with the workers. When a national strike wave broke out in 1980, the communist leadership had no choice but to allow the Solidarity trade union to be established, thus legitimizing an opposition organization. Soon Solidarity had 10 million members in the country.
The party leadership could not handle the new situation and introduced martial law in December 1981, which destroyed the union and led to the deaths of approximately one hundred sympathizers in the police riots and purge during the following years. The 1980s brought an economic downturn, with food prices rising two and a half times in 1982 and real incomes falling by 32 percent by the end of that year.
Many people think Gorbachev played a vital role in the democratic changes in the region and the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is no doubt that the more moderate political guidelines of the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union since 1985 were advantageous for the Polish democratic opposition movements. When strikes started across the country in 1988 again, it became clear to the Polish leadership that the only way to avoid bloodshed was to start a dialogue with the society and organize round table discussions.
In 1988, before the formal negotiations, the communist party leadership, the Solidarity movement, and representatives of the Catholic Church met 13 times in the village of Magdalenka. The parties stated their demands there, such as stopping the strikes on the one hand and recognizing Solidarity’s legitimacy on the other. By the 6th of February 1989, when negotiations officially began, Solidarity was seen by Poles as a legitimate challenger to the communist party. 452 people were present at these negotiations, which lasted until 5 April, and resulted in important decisions pointing toward a democratic political and economic change.
The Polish legislature became bicameral: the Senate, with 100 seats, was added to the lower house (Sejm), which has 460 members. For the lower house, voters could elect only 35% of opposition members according to the rules, but for the Senate, there was no such limit, the opposition could have won all 100 seats on paper. It was also decided that the two houses could elect a head of state.
The 1989 elections were neither fair nor free, but the result was still Solidarity’s landslide victory: They won 99 out of 100 seats in the Senate, and 35% of the Sejm, the maximum they could win with the limitations. As we have already seen in the previous articles, in addition to political change at that time, there has also been an economic change in the post-Soviet countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The new government inherited an extremely huge budget deficit, so it is no surprise that the Balcerowicz plan, named after the new Minister of Finance Leszek Balcerowicz, sounded pretty extreme. They liberalized the economy, adjusted the prices to the market, quickly privatized many companies, and made the zloty, the Polish currency convertible, by integrating it into the international currency market.
The „shock therapy” started in January 1990, turning the Polish economy suddenly upside down. Inflation was already at 78% in the first month, but radical measures were inevitable in the long run. Although the macroeconomic figures started to show a more positive picture with declining inflation, Poles expected a much more visible and impressive change from the new economic and political system. The disappointment had a negative effect on the citizens’ political engagement; in the first indeed free and fair election in 1991, the turnout was only 43%.
The new parliament was fragmented, 29 parties won seats, and Solidarity’s successor parties did not seem to be able to work together. By 1993, when the next elections were held, the economic crisis seemed to be over, industrial production started to rise by 4 percent, and the number of private enterprises multiplied. In that year, the left-wing SLD was able to form a government, while in 1997, the Solidarity Electoral Action won. As the parliament remained quite fragmented, it was difficult to define a coherent political direction. Still, democratization and strengthening the rule of law were shared goals at all ends of the political spectrum.
Poland’s successful break from the communist economic and political system is a success story for the whole region. The social movements already had a vision when change was not legally achievable yet, and they did not break when the trade union, the main driver of change, was banned. What Poles did was unprecedented in the countries under Soviet influence; they forced the regime without violence, by strikes and negotiations, to listen to them and take them into account. Eventually, they got involved in the country’s political discourse and governance.
There is no doubt that the international political developments helped the Polish democratic opposition, but those can be successful who see the opportunities and seize them. Poland’s contemporary history teaches us that we can make a real difference if we do not let our fate be decided without us. We should take control of our own lives and set an example for all our fellow citizens as we are responsible not only for ourselves but also for those around us. Poland has also received help from democratic capitalist countries since the better-off countries have the responsibility to help the less lucky ones.