WHEN Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz took a break from high-level politics during Poland's stint of martial law in the 1980s, he took on the life of a handyman, remodeling his family's farmhouse.
"In those days I had to learn how to be a carpenter, welder, plumber, and an electrician. There was no alternative but to do it yourself," says now-Prime Minister Cimoszewicz in an interview.
His Mr. Fix-it attitude is what the present government, made up of former Communists, is looking for to restore its credibility these days. After winning control of parliament in 1993, and the presidency last November, the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) has been dogged by charges that party member and former Prime Minister Jozef Oleksy spied for Moscow.
Like the newly elected Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski, Cimoszewicz, who took office earlier this year, is from a younger generation of reform-minded former Communists who now control government in Poland. They have shown a willingness to continue Poland's capitalist economic growth, though some Poles remain skeptical that the rank-and-file members of the SLD have committed themselves to political freedoms.
Cimoszewicz himself stayed true to the Communist Party right until it dissolved in 1990. But he doesn't apologize for it. "I was in the party for 19 years, and like in a Greek tragedy, the role had to be played until the end," he says.
Yet unlike other ex-Communists after the end of Communist rule, he never joined the Social Democrats of the Republic of Poland. This party makes up the core of the SLD. He is, however, part of the SLD itself.
He has earned the reputation for being fair and uncompromising, partly by refusing at times to follow the SLD's line. As justice minister in the first SLD-led government, he refused to purge from the judiciary nominees from the period when the anticommunist Solidary movement had controlled parliament.
Also as justice minister, Cimoszewicz launched a "clean hands" anticorruption campaign that rooted out SLD and opposition politicians employed in commercial companies. "The fundamentals needed in politics are common sense and the respect for honesty and the law," he says.
Beyond Poland's domestic challenges, Russia looms large. Poles are urgently seeking NATO membership despite Russian anger over the expanding military alliance. "We would not like to see the elections take Russia off a democratic course and result in imperialist nostalgia by pressuring its neighbors," says Cimoszewicz.
The ultimate test for Cimoszewicz's handyman approach will come when he tries to keep healthy debate open with the Polish right-wing and the Roman Catholic Church. The Polish right controls no branch of government since former President Lech Walesa, hero of the anticommunist Solidarity movement in the 1980s, lost a reelection bid last year. Bitterness has put substantive debate at a minimum.
"Political divisions between the left and the right ... have stopped dialogue on the most urgent problems facing Poland," he says.