Monday, August 22, 2005

The Polish August of 1980

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History passes by very fast in our fast-changing world.

This month it is a quarter of a century since the wave of strikes on the Baltic coast of Poland that rocked that Communist country and played a key role in initiating the sequence of events that lead to the collapse of communism in Europe and the reunification of our continent.

These very days - a quarter of a century ago - representatives of 50 000 to 90 000 striking workers in some 260 enterprises along the entire Baltic coast come together to set up a committe that issued a 21-point manifesto with demands that challenged the very foundation of the regime.

Based also on the experience of the suppresed weave of strikes a decade earlier, the strikers this time decided to put forward demands that were also of an obvious political nature.

Apart from de facto demanding that free trades unions should be established, they asked for censorship to be abolished and political prisoners to be released.

Some of the demands made in August 1980 in Gdansk were very pragmatic and of an economic and social nature. Communism was characterized by constant shortages of consumer goods and bad management and as a result, workers’ protests in different countries of the communist bloc erupted. Previously, they had often been suppressed by a combination of force and promises of pay rises.

In Gdañsk in August 1980, the regime initially followed this pattern and agreed to significant pay increases for workers. But that wasn't enough. The strike went on and grew in size and impact - and at the end the regime had little alternative than to agree to the 21 demands.

The immediate result of the acceptance of the demands was the foundation of the independent free trades union NSZZ Solidarnosc, which had more than 10 million members and became a massive social and political movement.

The political confrontation that followed between a retreating and desperate regime and the new aspirations of freedom brought Poland to the brink of Soviet military invasion and eventually the imposition of martial law, a brutal crackdown and the outlawing of Solidarnosz in December 1981.

But Solidarnosz survived as an underground organization and formed a team of negotiators, who held talks with the government at the so-called round table in 1989. The communist party was forced to make new concessions, which led to the first democratic elections in the communist bloc. Subsequently, the elections became an impetus for other countries of the Soviet bloc to fight for freedom and fostered the collapse of the Soviet empire from 1989 and onwards.

When the striking workers at the Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk challenged the authorities, they paved the way for the development that would not only lead to the collapse of the Soviet Empire in Europe, but also to their country Poland today being a proud and important member of both the European Union and NATO.

It is certainly an event both remembering and celebrating.