PM who led Poland from communism

By · 2 Nov 2013
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2 Nov 2013
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18-4-1927 - 28-10-2013

Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who went from editing small Roman Catholic intellectual publications to becoming prime minister of Poland - and the first non-communist to head an Eastern Bloc nation since the late 1940s - has died in Warsaw. He was 86.

The Polish government announced the death. President Bronislaw Komorowski ordered flags on government buildings to be flown at half-staff.

Mazowiecki, a journalist by profession, worked quietly for years to ease restrictions on individual rights and helped form the Solidarity trade union movement, which gained the leadership of Poland's national legislature in August 1989. By the end of that year, the Berlin Wall had fallen, communist governments in Moscow's other satellite states had collapsed and the Cold War division of Europe was over.

In a message of condolences, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in Communist East Germany, said Mazowiecki made "an unforgotten contribution to overcoming authoritarian injustice and to the unity of Europe."

In summer 1980, a chain of labour disturbances rocked Poland. The focus was the Gdansk shipyard, where Lech Walesa led a strike to demand higher pay and the restitution of a fired worker. Mazowiecki helped broaden it into an anti-bureaucratic social movement that became known as Solidarity.

He and his friend Bronislaw Geremek, a historian, persuaded 64 leading intellectuals, scholars, scientists and cultural figures to sign a petition that read in part: "In this struggle the place of the entire progressive intelligentsia is at their side. That is the Polish tradition, and that is the imperative of the hour."

Walesa thanked Mazowiecki and told him that he had a continued need for help from intellectuals in addressing government officials. Mazowiecki helped write the historic August 31 agreement that ended the strike and established Solidarity by guaranteeing workers' rights to form independent trade unions with the right to strike.

The communist government nonetheless felt threatened by Solidarity's mounting influence, and declared martial law on December 13, 1981, making Solidarity and other pro-democracy groups illegal. As tanks rolled through Warsaw, Mazowiecki was arrested and imprisoned for more than a year. After his release, he was again one of Walesa's closest advisers.

The Polish economy worsened, and in 1988 Walesa and Mazowiecki coordinated a strike at the Gdansk shipyard. That strike brought no concessions. But a second, bigger strike brought the communists to the negotiating table.

The Polish primate, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, appointed Mazowiecki a mediator, and he arranged the series of talks between the communists and Solidarity that led to plans for quasi-free parliamentary elections in which a newly legal Solidarity would be allowed to participate.

In the June 1989 vote, Solidarity won overwhelmingly in the districts it was allowed to contest and, after parliamentary manoeuvring with minor parties, was able to form a government.

General Wojciech Jaruzelski, head of the communist government, asked Walesa for three candidates, from whom he would select one as a Solidarity prime minister. He chose Mazowiecki. Many believed the Vatican influenced his choice, given Mazowiecki's role as an influential editor of Catholic weeklies and monthlies that promoted the social gospel underlying Solidarity's ideology.

Mazowiecki's V-for-victory sign to the chamber on appointment became the symbol of Poland's triumph over communism.

The communists retained control of the armed services, the police and the secret service, and Mazowiecki had to pledge to keep Poland in the Warsaw Pact, Moscow's military alliance. Still, he said in 2004: "I had this very strong conviction that we will make it, that we will be able to build the foundations for a democratic state."

He promised no "witch hunts" against the old government, saying it was "right and wise" to offer democracy to all Poles. When asked if he would be a Catholic prime minister or a prime minister of Solidarity, he replied: "Is there any contradiction between the two? I would like to reconcile the two."

At first, Mazowiecki told an interviewer, he was "terrified". With Poland facing staggering foreign debt, hyperinflation and a bankrupt treasury, he had reason to be. He had no choice but to accept harsh, unpopular conditions - including a wage freeze and an end to consumer subsidies - to secure a $700 million loan from the International Monetary Fund.

With no economic experience and little charisma, he was defeated when he ran for president in 1990. Walesa was elected.

Tadeusz Mazowiecki was born on April 18, 1927, in the city of Plock, in central Poland. His brother died in a Nazi concentration camp in World War II.

Mazowiecki studied law at the University of Warsaw but did not graduate. In 1953, he began editing a Catholic weekly, but was eventually fired because of his opposition to the communist government. He started an organisation of Catholic intellectuals and a new Catholic monthly.

In 1961, he was elected to the Polish parliament, where he led the opposition to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and unsuccessfully pushed for an investigation of the police massacre of striking Gdansk shipyard workers in 1971. As a result, he was barred from running for re-election in 1972. He then devoted himself to building alliances between the intelligentsia of the left and the fledgling Polish labour movement.

Mazowiecki, a tall, gaunt man with large, sad eyes, went on to hold various official and unofficial posts in Poland's government. In 1992, he was appointed envoy of the United Nations to war-torn Bosnia. He resigned in 1995 over what he regarded as the international community's insufficient response to atrocities there.

He had been married twice; both wives died. He had three sons, Wojciech, Adam and Michal.
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