Poles gather to mark 20 years of Solidarity

 

Thousands of Poles will gather in the Baltic port city of Gdansk today for the climax of three days of celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of the founding of Solidarity. The trade union brought about the collapse of communism in Poland.

But the celebrations have been marred by arguments over Solidarity's legacy and protests about the organisers' failure to invite workers from the shipyard where the protest movement began.

At a meeting of 2,000 Solidarity delegates in Gdansk yesterday, the leader of the strike at Gdansk shipyards in 1980, Mr Lech Walesa, called for a return to the values that inspired the protest.

"20 years ago, none of us counted on political or financial profit. Repression was more likely than honours," the Nobel peace laureate said.

20 years ago today, after a wave of strikes, Poland's communist government signed an agreement with Solidarity, promising to limit censorship, increase wages and improve the economy.

But the government imposed martial law to crush the union at the end of the following year, arresting thousands of its activists and killing dozens.

Solidarity survived underground and was legalised again in 1989 when a severe economic crisis forced the regime to seek compromise. Poland became the first communist country to hold partially free elections.

Although fragmented and increasingly unpopular, Solidarity has dominated Poland's governed for most of the last decade. But with President Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former communist, expected to win a second term in October and his left-wing allies tipped to win next year's parliamentary elections, Solidarity's grip on power looks increasingly tenuous.

Mr Kwasniewski was not invited to the Gdansk celebrations and the Prime Minister, Mr Jerzy Buzek, called on Solidarity supporters to unite to limit the influence of former communists.

"It would be a lack of responsibility for the country if we ignored clear signs that today this force is even closer to a monopoly of power. The way to avoid it is unity," he said.

The president apologised this week for offending former Solidarity activists by referring to a "sheep-like rush" to join the union following the signing of the Gdansk Agreement 20 years ago.

As Gdansk residents complained that the tight security measures in force were more reminiscent of martial law than of the birth of Solidarity, there were protests at the exclusion of the people who started Poland's revolution - the shipyard workers. When a speaker at one of Tuesday's events mentioned the workers, a group in the hall shouted "Where are they?"

Mr Jerzy Borowczek, a member of the Solidarity strike committee, described the celebrations as forced and overblown and said few shipyard workers would like them.

"20 years ago, I thought we were heading for freedom and democracy . . . Now we have three million unemployed and there's a total lack of solidarity," he said.