Sunday 19 November 2017

Solidarnosc defies Poland's culture wars

A conservative bid to hijack the solidarity movement's legacy has backfired, writes Louis Jacob

A searing Polish summer of political strife, which has often flirted with the sheer peculiar, last week culminated in what The Warsaw Business Journal described as the 'tragicomedy' surrounding the 30th anniversary celebrations of the legendary Solidarnosc movement.

It's now three decades since Lech Walesa and the workers of the Lenin boatyard in Gdansk formed the anti-Soviet trade union movement known as Solidarnosc (Solidarity), which led to the end of Soviet rule in Poland and ultimately to the fall of the iron curtain.

It should be a time of national unity and pride, but all is not well with Solidarnosc and, last week, tensions ran high as founding members labelled the political manoeuvres surrounding the anniversary as a 'disgrace'.

Once again, Jaroslaw Kaczynski's skills as an agitator came to the fore at a reunion of the Solidarnosc members in Gdynia. At the ceremony, attended in the main by members of his Law and Justice party, he gave a speech in which he once again eulogised his deceased brother, Polish president Lech Kaczynski, who perished in a plane crash in April. To huge applause, he also used his speech to question the patriotism of the current ruling party, Civic Platform.

Henryka Krzywonos-Strycharska, one of the heroes of the Solidarnosc movement took exception to his speech, screaming that this was a celebration for the whole nation and that the respect should be shared. Though she was not scheduled to speak, she was visibly enraged as she rose to confront Kaczynski. The crowd began to jeer and whistle at her as she spoke, causing her to ask them how they dared boo someone who was actively involved in Solidarnosc, when most of them had no part in it.

She also drew major ire from the crowd when she accused Kaczynski of not showing proper respect and accused him of destroying the dignity of his brother.

During all this Lech Walesa, who now supports Civic Platform, was nowhere to be seen. He had boycotted the event, saying that he could no longer tolerate the constant politicisation of the movement. Walesa believes that Solidarnosc is outdated as a trade union and that, in its current form, it has become a divisive entity. He proposes that it be scrapped and reinvented as a cultural movement, which would act as an apolitical source of inspiration that would unite the people of Poland in a common spirit.

The majority of Solidarnosc trade union members lean toward the nationalistic Law and Justice party of the Kaczynskis, rather than the more economically liberal Civic Platform and this has been the driving force in how the divide has come about. Jaroslaw Kaczynski seems to thrive on divisive issues such as this and has done everything short of actually claiming Solidarnosc as an exclusive possession of his own party.

Neither Walesa nor the new President Komorowski (two of the most active members of Solidarnosc) were invited to the anniversary of the 1980 signing of the Jastrzebskie agreement by the miners and the communists. The flimsy reason the organisers gave was that, in a country which has become as divided as Poland, a guarantee could not be given that the president would be 'honourably received'.

This caused outrage, mainly because president Lech Kaczynski was invited to these celebrations in 2009 and attended. The question being asked is how these ceremonies of collective national significance are being hoarded and moulded to meet specific political agendas, namely -- Law and Justice's continuing inability to accept that the social landscape in Poland is shifting away from the politics of their conservative Christian party.

The Warsaw Business Journal drew the valid analogy, of the African National Congress deciding not to invite Nelson Mandela or Jacob Zuma to events commemorating the end of apartheid, and questioned the organisers' sense of poise and national pride.

Last Tuesday night, Walesa showed up at a massive Robert Wilson-directed concert held in Gdansk to commemorate Solidarnosc. Major international names like Marianne Faithfull and Macy Gray performed to a passionately patriotic crowd outside the boatyard where, in August 1980, Lech Walesa defied the authorities and scaled the fence to proclaim solidarity with unfairly dismissed co-worker Anna Walentynowicz -- a defining and mythical moment.

Having cleverly avoided all the political dross and humdrum last week, suddenly Lech Walesa was the star of the show once more, on stage at the boatyard in Gdansk 30 years on, arms held aloft in customary defiance of squabbling politicians -- with the adoring cheers of an emotional audience ringing in his ears And at that moment, it became crystal clear what Solidarnosc really means, and why it was Walesa who made the difference all those years ago.

Still a master of the grand gesture . . . the right man, in the right place, at the right time.

Sunday Independent

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