Lech Wałęsa: "Do not destroy the EU"
In an exclusive interview to Heti Válasz, the Nobel Peace Prize winner former Polish president explains his major mistake
The shipyard in Gdańsk, Solidarity movement, Nobel Peace Prize, breaking Communism. These are the attributes of Lech Wałęsa which almost everybody knows and no one questions them. Then why are his own compatriots approaching one of the last heroes of Central Europe with a heavy heart?
Though the whole world looks up to him with respect, in Poland Lech Wałęsa is currently being sued based on documents obtained from the house of the last Communist minister of interior and prime minister, Czesław Kiszczak, who passed away in 2015. According to these documents, Mr. Wałęsa was recruited by the secret service in the 1970s and wrote reports under the code name of Bolek. While the ex-president steadfastly denies these claims, Polish society could not be more devided: there are some who still consider him a hero while others boo him in the presence of the Donald Trump.
We were devoted to find out its reason and it was not irrelevant either what such a major political figure (who is still not willing to retire) thinks about the current European, Polish and Hungarian political life. Not independently from the fact that his former colleagues are attacking him from the currently governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, while his official reputation was more significant during the years when the current key opposition party, Civic Platform (PO) was in power under the leadership of Donald Tusk who now heads the European Council.
We met Mr. Wałęsa in his office which is on the 2nd floor of the European Solidarity Centre, a museum opened in 2014 next to the Monument to the Fallen Shipyard Workers of 1970, on the territory of his former place of work, the onetime Lenin Shipyard of Gdańsk.
Mr. President, how are you doing?
So-so. I am 75 years old and I have already packed up my things. I would rather escape elsewhere. I am fed up with this world.
It is better on the other side. No one has escaped from there.
How long have you been thinking like that?
Since I have been older than 50. I had a little pain here, a tiny pinch there. After these one begins to mull things over. Currently my tears are dropping constantly and my body is shaking. Good God could do this much.
Do you mean only physical pain?
Exclusively. Politics has a reverse effect on me: the more difficult, the more it livens me up.
Is it difficult now?
Not for me.
Still it seems so.
Of course. I have as many enemies as friends. Because I am a man of actions. This is the unabashed truth. I tell what I think, one may like it or not – currently many people do not like it.
Do you know any other country which sues its Nobel Peace Prize winner?
No. But there is no such place as ideal country so I would be in trouble anywhere. Though I was about to retire, I cannot afford it in this situation.
What situation is that?
In former times every country was different while nowadays we are getting to be involved into broader institutions. In order to organise it, we have to settle the principles. Then comes the next question about the economical regime with which we should run it. Once we had Communism but should its opposite, Capitalism, really mean that 10 per cent possesses 90 per cent of the goods? I do not say to take it away from them but that money is nonfunctional. Otherwise all our problems could be solved. We should make it function somehow, but again, we have returned to the prinicples: what does the political right and left side mean today? And democracy – which is unable to control populism and demagogy? There are people speaking bullshit and winning elections. We should somehow address this, and it is our generation’s duty to have a settlement about it. This is inevitable but we are still thinking according to the old way. Take, for instance, the Polish parties: PiS and PO – they are unfit into the current frames. Nowadays people are convenient, they do not go anywhere. So one should create institutions which do not require activism, yet the whole membership is aware where they belong to.
Having heard what you said about populism, it seems you did not want this 30 years ago.
Of course I did not want this! My idea was to fight against Communism which would be substituted by democracy and I thought it would solve everything. If I had known that the society was so unprepared, I would have prolonged the whole process. But I believe in democracy because sooner or later it will prevail. The question is how much evil will we have until then. Hurting each other is really a must or will wisdom win finally?
"Hurting each other is really a must?"
Photo: Szabolcs Vörös
In January 1989 you told the following to the Polish weekly Polityka: "We want a system which incorporates everything positive from Capitalism but also takes over some good things from Socialism." What was good in Socialism?
Briefly: Capitalism focuses on interests while Socialism takes the human into the center. It was care-taking. This is something we should tie down today. What we have today is not Capitalism but free-market economy. This ought to be – not so much but a bit – social.
You have mentioned PiS. What is your problem with them?
I do not like the system either which they are about to undermine. So our diagnosis is similar but while I wished to fix it democratically, they are exterminating every disturbing factor. Back in the days as president, I sent my decrees to the Parliament with a notion that they had 10 days to present something better. PiS rather throws away every law they dislike. This is why we disagree, this is why I punch them. Right now I am about to speak with the prime minister and tell her that she speaks bullshits, lies shamelessly and wants to destroy Europe.
Does she pick up your call?
I rather post it.
What is your take on being attacked by your ex-colleagues who are currently in PiS?
It is ridiculous. In Communist times, secret services were at least better prepared while they were fighting against me but they also knew that they could not defeat me so they tried to challenge the people around me to hate each other and become suspicious.
What if the court rules that they are right?
Proofs are so evident that this is out of question. They do not have any chance because we have so many witnesses. It costs money, but truth will prevail.
What is your first thought when you hear the name Bolek?
My father. It was his name. As for this current issue, I have disclosed everything but PiS is in power now, they control the press so they echo their own version. But I think only few believe them.
In January the president of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), Jarosław Szarek – as the main "caretaker" of your files –, said the following, referring to you: "Due to his unsettled relationship with his own past, he has lost his prestige by now."
He should rather think about his own prestige and leave me alone!
If his statement is false, then how could it be possible that you were booed when president Trump welcomed you during his speech in Warsaw this July?
Do people not boo in your country? Are there no demonstrations? This is called democracy…
… but the US president does not pay a visit to Budapest.
There will always be groups to be paid. This was the case here too; they were trained. But let us skip it, there are plenty of more important issues!
Do you follow what is happening in Hungary?
I do and I do not like it. As I said: we do not fit into the old frames. We have to sit down and talk to each other in order to head off the obstacles. Take the EU for instance: it is bureaucratic but we need it. If Hungarians and Poles destroy it – because they are able to do so –, in 5 minutes France, Germany and Italy would form an alliance we could not influence. Hungarians took the same stance as Poles: they do not want to build but destroy.
Was it not Poland that took the same stance as Hungary?
Correct. And Poland is even worse. I do not like bureaucracy either but we need a place where we are able to speak to each other. I am a revolutioner and I put the question: what is better: to abolish the EU and create another one or to repair the current one? But if someone wishes to have a new one then let him do it – but it goes along not only with freedom but also with responsibility. If everybody acts along its own ideas, it will not work.
Is there anything that you particularly dislike in Hungary?
There is no coopeartion. There are no ideas, only individual actions. I know your prime minister very well, we met several times – even in his home – and earlier I had better opinion about him. He is a wise man with good arguments but I thought we would rather build.
Alike his Polish colleagues’, his popularity breaks records.
Many like populism and demagogy but a responsible person does not act like this. Consider the situation in Poland: the government has just decreased the age of retirement so the opposition has to promise even more. But how long are we going to bid this way? They attacked jurisdiction too because everybody feels anger towards the courts. They put popular ideas on their agenda, they have been elected and now they think they are permitted to do anything. We will need 100 years to clean all this. But people are fond of it.
|Dwa (ex-) bratanki?|
"Solidarity was more than a trade union, it was rather a movement. (…) In order to avoid open conflict, Wałęsa was under the necessity of putting aside the democratic principles of the movement. (…) There were fears that wild-strikes and street demonstartions will spread which might lead to the administrative measures of the government", a quote from a 1987 law school thesis written by Viktor Orbán who examined social self-organisation by observing the Polish example.
This illustrates the early interest between the Hungarian prime minister and Mr. Wałęsa which became mutual despite they have never held office parallelly. This has not prevented them to meet regularly like in 1997 when – as already a former Polish president – Mr. Wałęsa even held a speech on the congress of Mr. Orbán’s Fidesz party and a year later, during the last days of the 1998 Hungarian election campaign, he shared stage with his Hungarian friend. "The cooperation between generations believing in the future is crucial. In Hungary, Fidesz is the best representative of this idea", Mr. Wałęsa said in April 1998 in the city of Esztergom (Ostrzyhom in Polish).
The two met several times later as well. Mr. Wałęsa paid his last visit to the Hungarian capital in November 2014 to receive the honorary citizenship of Budapest as well as the Stephen the Saint and the Visegrad Bridge Prizes. During the laudation of the latter one, the Minister of the Prime Minister's Office, János Lázár, labeled him as "Central Europe’s incarnate conscience".
What is the reason for this? A significant per cent of the goverment’s electorate have lived in Communism.
And why was Trump elected? Or Macron in France – from the street? Similar to the Communist era, people want changes and we are not prepared for that. We have to find rapid and smart solution otherwise the mob will take over control.
Is there any politician who has an open mind for your thoughts?
Politics has turned into a caricature which thinks in electoral districts and mandates. There are no visionary politicians but TV stars. We have to find a solution for this because earlier, when every country was its own master, it might have been okay but in the midst of globalism, it is not. Everybody is shouting for more freedom but sooner or later we will find out that we need rules and restricted freedom. However, we are not in this situation yet.
Was the march on the 11th of November in Warsaw, which was labeled as far-right action by the Western media, a symptom of all of this?
We are a country of 40 million people where you can collect 100 thousand people almost out of the blue. The current government has embraced football fans and the mob – with the help of whom they are in power – and now it is difficult to get rid of them. They are pretending they have not seen anything on the 11th of November. In the old days people were afraid of God, then of Communism, but today they fear nothing. We are in the worst phase of history because the old has already fallen but there is no substitution yet, so people are doing what they want.
Are you afraid of its consequences?
Currently I am thinking how much blood should be spilled in order to have wisdom to have victory. But I am afraid of nothing; we have to survive this. Wisdom comes with sacrifice. Maybe we burn the country, but sooner or later we will get back to the right way.
Sort of a weird optimism…
I am an activist who sees where the roads are leading to. I am neither worried nor panicked but simply watching what and why is happening.
"He was a silent guy without particular standouts. Sometimes he asked for a word during meetings but was not too harsh." This was a testimony of a former colleague of yours about you in an interview made for the Hungarian public radio in Gdańsk in the 80s. What has made you to change?
I was brought up in a simple way, I did not want to become a politician. But due to my upbringing, I was unable to agree what was happening that time. I grew up in a village where everybody knew each other. That was more or less okay. But as soon as I left my home and "caught a glimpse of the sea", I broached everything I disliked. This has tossed my into opposition because I thought "how come that I was right but still they were doing something different?". I always reached out to the extreme and people were fond of it. In difficult situations I was always pushed to the frontline and I had no problems with going there. At the age of 10 even a priest got angry about my opinion. Later he admitted I was right and told me: "Son, you will either die in prison or get very high." Both have happened.
Lech Wałęsa speaks during a demonstration of the Solidarity movement in Warsaw (1981)
Photo: Getty Images/East News/Wojtek Laski
Have you ever thought that "I have done everything I could so I give a damn about it"?
It is prohibited. I am a religious man who will be held account up there. If I did not act according to the law of my faith, I would get into hell next to Lenin and Stalin who would not leave me alone as I destroyed Communism.
You have mentioned you were considering retirement…
… but meanwhile such things are happening that make me unable to escape. I am getting closer to the decision to rebuild my team.
Who are they exactly?
It is not a problem. Nor urgent. Let the goverment do more stupidity so time will come when we have to act. This government will not be better and we have to kick them out urgently. I will do it when time arrives.
Am I getting you right: are you about to return to politics?
No, I am not.
Where else can you make your ideas real?
People are listening to me. I have enough knowhow and strength to do it.
But really: with whom?
I will not tell you. If it is me, then I will do it. But I will not tell you how and when.
Are you suggesting that the oppostion is not capable for this?
They might be numerous enough but lack the experience I have. Let them become mature, let them create then I will help them.
Have they ever asked you?
Yes and no. But I do not care because I am stubborn. I have achievements and will not allow anyone to destroy them. But time has not arrived yet for such a decision because there is still some hope that things will change. I wish that things changed because I am old and I do not feel like doing it, but maybe one day I will not have any other option. I will not be afraid of it because I only fear God and my wife. If I am convinced that I am wrong, then I will retire.
Have you ever admitted you were wrong?
Many times. I am like a child: I was convinced so I believed it.
You are well-known for your actions in the 80s. Have you ever felt any sorrow for the relative obscurity of the rest?
Even those actions people know were not my revolution. Moreover, I lost later to let democracy win. A functioning democracy is my happiness. I am an idealist therefore I do not think along the schemes you asked. I did not want to be a president, either, but in that particular situation I had no choice. I had to act in a way so that Communists had no clue what I was about to. I became president which enabled me to kick out General Jaruzelski and the Soviets. My drama was that I could not confess them the truth: I made a fool out of myself. Otherwise they would not have made allowances.
So you have lied to the Communists.
And does a believer lie?
Even today I have a problem with that. This was an ugly action of mine and left a bad taste in my mouth because it is not my style, I keep my promises. But what else could I have done with them?