Poland this week rightly celebrated the 20th anniversary of the June 1989 elections which ended the Communist party’s monopoly of power and led to the collapse of the Soviet empire.
Poles are annoyed the event generates less international attention than it deserves. They complain it is the fall of the Berlin Wall that makes world headlines, even though that came in November, months later, when it was clear Moscow had given up trying to keep hold of eastern Europe.
The Poles have a point. Without the Solidarity movement exposing the fundamental fragility of Communist party power years before mass protests elsewhere, the Soviet Union might have attempted a crack down in 1989, with unpredictable consequences.
But Poles are their own worst enemies. Disputes over marking 1989 led to a hasty decision to switch the celebrations to Krakow from Gdansk, Solidarity’s birthplace, for fear of protests from shipyard workers worried about their jobs.
More fundamentally, the ruling centre-right Civic Platform party, and the conservative opposition Law and Justice party, associated with president Lech Kaczynski, are split over 1989. Both have grown from Solidarity and are led largely by ex-Solidarity activists. But Law and Justice argues the 1989 compromise, under which the communists surrendered power peacefully, went too far in allowing ex-communists to remain in public life. The party wants a new reckoning with the past, including the vetting of public officials over alleged communist-era links.
Civic Platform says trying to revise the 1989 settlement is dangerously divisive. Most Poles agree – and backed the party in its decisive 2007 election victory over Law and Justice. But the conservatives keep trying to reopen old wounds.
It is time to move on. The rights and wrongs of 1989 should be left largely to historians. Political leaders should focus on the undoubted success of the transformation of the past 20 years, including entry into Nato and the European Union. Poland is in a better political and economic position than at any time in 300 years. That is the real legacy of 1989. Meanwhile, much remains to be done.
The economic crisis, the euro, the gap between rich and poor, weak infrastructure, and worries about the security of Russian gas are all high on the agenda. So is making the most of EU membership. Poland recently played the Brussels political game well in winning support for the Eastern Partnership, the EU’s new flagship foreign policy. But it is still a “new” member in a club led by the “old”. With time and effort those divisions will fade. Only then will the post-1989 integration of Europe be achieved. Only then will Solidarity’s victory be complete.