WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland on Monday celebrated 40 years since it took a crucial step toward democracy with the creation of the Soviet bloc's first free trade union, Solidarity, which changed the course of the nation's history.
At the same time, Poland is closely watching protests in neighboring Belarus against the re-election of a pro-Moscow president, events that resemble the mass actions that led to the formation of Solidarity.
Ceremonies Monday in the city of Gdansk marked the anniversary of an agreement forced upon Poland's communist rulers in 1980 by thousands of striking workers, granting their 21 demands — the top one being the creation of an independent union. Other demands were the right to strike and the freedom of speech, about curbing party privileges and improving the people's living standards.
“It was the greatest victory in Poland's history and its value rested in the fact that the old order was defeated but at the same time those who were defeated were encouraged to remain friends," said Solidarity founder Lech Walesa, who was later Poland's president.
He was speaking at a place symbolic for Solidarity — the gate of the Gdansk Shipyard where 40 years ago he signed the agreement alongside a government representative. Solidarity spearheaded a national movement that in 1989 toppled the Moscow-backed communist government, through parliamentary elections, and inspired similar moves across much of the Soviet bloc.
The U.S. Ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher, tweeted that “Without the signing of the August agreements and the rise of Solidarity there would have been no fall of communism in Europe.”
Leaders of Poland’s right-wing government were holding separate ceremonies in Gdansk to stress their long-standing negative assessment of the deal with the communists and of Walesa’s role in it. They say the deal allowed the communists to keep too much influence in Poland's politics and economy.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Monday that Solidarity stood not only for the past 40 years that Poland was celebrating but was also a “determinant and azimuth for the next 40 years" for the government and the nation.
Poland is now drawing international attention to the developments in Belarus that resemble its own struggle for independence.
The current Solidarity leader, Piotr Duda, said during Gdansk ceremonies that the union will try to bring assistance to protesters in Belarus.
“Our hearts and eyes are focused on Belarus, where they are having their August now and where they should not be short of solidarity, spelled with the small s and the big S," Duda said.
Rallies were held Monday in Gdansk, on the Baltic Sea coast, and in Krakow, in the south, in support of the daily protests that have gone into their fourth week in Belarus. The protesters are calling for the authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko to resign. They say the Aug. 9 presidential election that gave Lukashenko a sixth term in office was rigged.
Poland's own path to democracy was not easy.
Amid the jubilant mood of 1980, the Poles were not aware that before they could gain democratic rights, they would go through many more protests, two years of martial law and the outlawing of Solidarity, almost a decade of deep economic crisis, empty shops and stagnation.
Finally, a new wave of strikes brought the communist authorities to the negotiating table with Solidarity in 1989, and to partly free elections that led to the ouster of the communists.
Since then, Poland's young democracy has gone through political conflicts and more hardship, especially in the 1990s, under stringent economic transition from a centrally managed to a free market economy.
It is a member of the European Union and NATO now and has one of the fastest growing economies in Europe, but the hardship has taken its toll and ushered in a right-wing, divisive government that is riding high in opinion polls on a policy of social benefits, but is also clashing with the EU over its reform of the judiciary and its democracy record.
“The road to Poland’s freedom, that started 40 years ago, was difficult, rough and tragic but the Poles never lost hope,” Mosbacher said in her tweet.