Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa still shaking up Poland, 30 years later

Walesa is a controversial figure in Poland today and at odds with Solidarity, the communist-defying trade union he led when he won the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize.

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    Solidarity founder and former Polish President Lech Walesa holds gifts he received during his foundation's award ceremony at the Artus House in Gdansk, Poland, late last month. Mr. Walesa, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, today is a controversial figure in Poland.
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When Lech Walesa won the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize, it was a shining moment for the Polish trade union Solidarity he propelled to global renown. For Mr. Walesa himself, however, it posed serious problems, not the least of which was potential exile. 

“We believed it was an award for the whole Solidarity movement,” says Konstanty Gebert, a journalist and a Solidarity veteran who recalls how Mr. Walesa’s wife had to travel to Oslo to accept the prize on his behalf.

“He was afraid that if he left the country, the communist authorities wouldn't let him back in,” Mr. Gebert says. “Together with my friends, we almost cried when we listened to her speech on the Radio Free Europe, which wasn't easy because the communist authorities tried to jam the broadcast."

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Today, Walesa is no longer simply the well-known hero who helped bring down communism in Poland. Thirty years after being acknowledged by the Nobel committee and the world, he is a far more controversial figure in his homeland. He is known as much for his controversial comments and his confrontational relationship with the movement he once led.

A contentious figure

While he is a well-known name abroad, Walesa arouses extreme emotions in Poland: Some people love him, others hate him. “He causes excitement in Poland, just like Margaret Thatcher in the UK,” says Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, former Polish minister of foreign affairs and Walesa's close ally.

“I've known him since Aug. 1980, and he didn't change at all during all those years. He's a smart guy, he's not educated but he knows a lot, he gets his knowledge from his interlocutors. His brain is like a fast computer, many people can't follow after him,” says Ireneusz Engler, a Polish director who has filmed many documentaries about Walesa and Solidarity.

But the Solidarity leader fell out of favor with many Poles during his 1990-1995 presidency, when sometimes he acted unilaterally. He didn't listen to anybody: public opinion, his allies, or the opposition, his critics say. Some people accuse Walesa of being a communist informer known as "Bolek," a charge he has always denied.

“He didn't – and still doesn't – understand what democracy means,” says Mr. Gebert, who was with Mr. Walesa at the historic roundtable talks with Poland's Soviet-backed leaders in 1989.

He is still very controversial – he recently said that gay politicians should sit "behind a wall in the Polish parliament. That sort of blunt statement is not new for Walesa.

“I remember that when we were in Guatemala in the 1990s, he was invited to make a speech,” Gebert says. "The civil war just ended, it was a time for reconciliation."

"Walesa said to the people who gathered there to listen to him that the whole of South America was a mess and that the US should have come there long before and done the right thing. And he got a standing ovation from the generals, while human rights activists wanted to know if it was a translator's fault."

“Definitely, he's not an easy-going personality,” Mr. Bartoszewski says.

“He's harsh, doesn't have friends, and likes to be in a spotlight,” Engler says. "He needs this like oxygen."

Engler notes that Walesa's self-confidence – and tactlessness – may be a side effect of being on the right side of history during Poland's tumult in the 1980s.

“Walesa's biggest problem is that he was right so many times. That made him believe that he's always right. I'm sure this has nothing to do with the Nobel Prize. Even if he had not got the award, success would have gone to his head,” Gebert says.

These days, Walesa waves off the significance of the Nobel prize, in his contentious way. “It was such a long time ago, there is nothing to recall,” he tells The Christian Science Monitor. “It's time to think about the present and the future not about the past.”

No more solidarity

Today, he says the most important thing on his mind is the shipyard in Gdansk, the birthplace of Solidarity. Walesa worked there as an electrician and was a strike leader in 1980. But now, the shipyard’s Ukrainian owner says that the historic site is on the verge of bankruptcy, and will not survive without a massive cash injection. The yard employs around 2,000 people these days, about a tenth of what it did during its heyday.

“The shipyard made me a hero. I want to help, but it would be difficult,”  Walesa says. "In my opinion, the shipyard has only a 5 percent chance to survive. We wanted capitalism, so now we have it."

Part of the difficulty in saving the shipyard lies in his soured relationship with Solidarity. It's no secret that Walesa and the current union leadership don't like each other. For Walesa, Solidarity is no longer the union that he fought for. And the union's board thinks about Walesa in the same way.

"His role in the union could be significant, if he didn't behave in a controversial way," said Piotr Duda, the current Solidarity leader, in an e-mail to the Monitor. "I am thinking for example about his last year's meeting with [2012 US presidential candidate] Mitt Romney, a person who is strongly anti-union and anti-workers. But even so, we repeatedly reached out to our first leader. Unfortunately, without any results."

These days, “the biggest problem for Lech Walesa," Mr. Duda says, "is Lech Walesa."

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