Courtesy Reuters

Poland: The Demise of Communism

Poland has always been something of a maverick in the "Eastern bloc." In 1989 it again lived up to that reputation. Its ruling party, the Polish United Workers' Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza, or PZPR), became the first in Eastern Europe to come to terms with the inexorable erosion of its power and of its ultima ratio, the specter of Soviet military intervention. In an act that was as dramatic as it was unprecedented, the party gave up its hallowed "leading role"-that is, its monopoly on power-and agreed, at first de facto and eventually de jure, to reconstitute itself as a "loyal opposition" within a genuine if nascent parliamentary system.

The transition from one-party dictatorship to constitutional pluralism was neither swift nor smooth. It was preceded by several months of fractious and desultory talks between the government and the Solidarity-based opposition that culminated in the "roundtable" negotiations of February-April 1989. The opposition insisted upon the re-legalization of Solidarity and the acceptance of its founder, Lech Walesa, as the government's negotiating partner. Since the official media had long since dismissed Solidarity as an organization that had virtually ceased to exist, these conditions were hard for the party to swallow, especially so for its hard-line apparatchiki (popularly known as beton-concrete). The OPZZ (Ogólno-Polskie Zwiazki Zawodowe), the officially sanctioned trade union federation, also resisted as did otherwise "reformist" but bitterly anti-Solidarity party leaders such as Mieczyslaw Rakowski (first secretary of the PZPR since July 1989).

Rakowski's hostility dated back to his abrasive confrontations with Solidarity in 1981, when he served as General Wojciech Jaruzelski's "contact man" with Solidarity and opposition circles in general. In September 1988 he was named chairman of the Council of Ministers and immediately launched a two-pronged policy: to put teeth into the program of economic renewal, badly botched by his predecessor, Zbigniew Messner, and to contain the growing power of the opposition.1

Both these attempts came dismally to grief. Inflation continued to soar, productivity declined even further, and patchwork solutions, such as increasing

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