Ten years ago, April 7, 1989, opposing camps sat down at a large round table in the capitol of Poland and began drafting a resolution to the nations’ 10-year-old conflict that was showing no signs of disappearing. On one side was the Communist camp, the PRL, reigning Poland under the close wing of the Soviet Union, on the other, a united Solidarity coalition which shook the communist world to its very core 10 years earlier in the seaport city of Gdansk.
The subsequent crackdown on Dec. 24, 1981 of Solidarity with the imposition of martial law, imprisonment of chief Solidarity supporters including its stalwart leader, Lech Walesa, and even deaths of miners in some coal fields in Silesia (still under investigation), could not thwart the opposition. Like a troublesome insect sniping at a hard-to-get at spot on one’s back, Solidarity kept at it, with work shut-downs, general strikes, clandestine publishing, church support, and the like, insisting on its right to a democratic form of government.
This insistence over the years led to the now momentous round table talks in an effort to end the conflict. Behind the Communist government’s camp stood the Soviet Red Army, itself buffeted by the effects of glasnost and perestroika, attributed by some to the ferment in Poland. Behind the Solidarity coalition stood not tanks and planes, but the moral support of the free world. And for the next few days back and forth went the words and arguments, the principal players well-known around the world — Jaruzelski, Kiszczak, Rakowski et al. — for keeping the status quo, Walesa, Mazowiecki, Bujak, et al. — for letting the people decide what kind of government they wanted.
The outcome now is known universally and grandly applauded for what was achieved. Free elections which were won in the negotiations were to see the fall of the Communist Party and the installment of a democratic form of governance, with an elected president and members of the Sejm (parliament). And 10 years later, this negotiated settlement stands as firmly as granite with a free-market economy, the wonder and envy of many a country. This accomplishment, the fruits of round table talks, takes on special significance in the fact of the present disturbance in Kosovo. The Poles were able to negotiate the collapse of communism in its own country, leading to the collapse of communism everywhere else in Europe, ending with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall seven months later.
The Poles showed the world that the impossible was possible, the negotiations proving that antagonisms of 40 years could be reconciled peacefully. They proved that people and not theories or historical laws make history. This may be the most important lesson to have come out of these round-table talks — to Americans and to the rest of the world — that a peace could be negotiated without violence or social disorder or economic upheaval. For this lesson Poles can hold up high their heads on this special anniversary and take pride in what they were able to accomplish those 10 year ago — by negotiating for their rights, not warring.
Edwin P. Kulawiec is a retired professor of education from the University of Southern Maine.