Academic journal article Humanities Research

The Breakthrough: Polish Elections in June 1989

Academic journal article Humanities Research

The Breakthrough: Polish Elections in June 1989

Article excerpt

History needs a broad perspective and it is most clear when aided by hindsight and long distance. The 20 years that have just passed since the memorable June of 1989 provide a most useful platform for assessing the historical importance of the three events in Poland that constituted the political 'Breakthrough': the round table negotiations in February- April 1989, the 'contract' parliamentary elections in June, and the formation of the Solidarity government in September 1989 - the first non-communist government in the Soviet Bloc. Together, in a spiralling and self-reinforcing political sequence, they formed a 'Breakthrough', that is, a threefold shift: for Solidarity, a shift from (predominantly moral) opposition to (politically constructive) affirmation; for Polish political leaders, a shift from reforms of the communist system to systemic transformation 'out of the system'; and for Eastern Europe, a shift from dissent to a phase of institutional change into 'post-communism'. In other words, the three events, as claimed here, played a crucial role in accelerating and radicalising the 'internal' socio-political developments in Poland - transforming Solidarity opposition into Solidarity government - and 'externally', in the entire region, by starting a political 'contagion' that led to the domino-like collapse of communist regimes all over Eastern Europe.

The Breakthrough itself, as argued in the Introduction and by this author elsewhere in this volume (Chapter 6), has to be historically 'embedded'. For a start, it has to be seen within the historical sequence of events that generated the annus mirabilis in Europe: the economic crisis of Soviet-type socialism as reflected in deepening economic woes and widening political dissent; the evolution of social protests and upheavals, especially under the impact of 'cumulative learning' and influential appeals of the Polish Pope, both pushing the communist authorities to negotiations with the democratic opposition; Gorbachev's perestroïka and glasnost, which gave an 'amber light' of cautious approval to all Eastern European reformists; the accompanying climate of WestEast détente that enabled the largely peaceful transformations; and, last but not least, the mass media revolution and the 'global village' effect that facilitated the political contagion.

This broader historical framework is outlined in more detail in Chapter 6 of this volume. Here, we look only at key events in Poland most directly linked with, and leading to, the Solidarity-engineered Breakthrough, as well as the impact of this Breakthrough on developments in the region.

The Background

The round table has a relatively short history. While the very idea of negotiated conflict resolution and political compromise was popular in opposition circles in the 1970s and 1980s, and had already been applied during the negotiations in August- September 1980 that led to the formation of Solidarity, the label itself was popularised by General Jaruzelski in mid-1988, when he proposed reconciliation talks aimed at defusing the mounting social unrest caused by the failure of martial law to 'close the Solidarity chapter'. Attempts at reforming the ailing Polish economy 'from above', without a broader social compact, proved unsuccessful, and, by the late 1980s, the communist authorities started to realise that negotiations with the opposition were unavoidable.

This realisation was also prompted by a new political climate created by Gorbachev's reforms and the accompanying climate of détente with the West. The unexpected developments in Moscow were initially treated with suspicion. But the sceptics were proven wrong, in particular after Gorbachev's tolerant treatment of Soviet dissenters, especially Sakharov; his unexpected renunciation of 'Brezhnev's Doctrine' at the UN forum in 1988; and his friendly gestures towards the West. Even the harshest sceptics in Poland changed their views after Gorbachev's friendly meetings with opposition intellectuals during his visit to Poland in summer 1988, in the midst of the second strike wave that prompted General Jaruzelski to offer round table talks. …

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