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Lech Walesa

Last modified 5 June 2013.

First published 16 February 2001. Reviewed 23 January 2007

Country: Poland.

Cause: Liberation of Poland from communist regime.

Background: Sandwiched between Germany and Russia, Poland is under constant threat of invasion from the time of its formation in the middle of the 10th Century. The country's borders expand and contract dramatically over the centuries as regions are either annexed by or won back from its neighbours. Following the First World War, Poland achieves an uneasy and short-lived independence that is shattered when Germany invades on 1 September 1939, starting the Second World War.

At the end of the war the country falls behind the Soviet Union's 'Iron Curtain', becoming a satellite state of the superpower. A pro-Soviet communist government is installed. Popular dissent mounts as the Polish economy begins to falter. When the Soviet Union begins to break apart the Polish people seize the opportunity to again achieve their independence. More background.

Mini biography: Born on 29 September 1943 in Popowo, near Wloclawek, Poland, into a working class family.

1961 - After receiving a primary education and training as an electrician in a local agricultural machinery college, Walesa works as a farm machinery mechanic for four years then serves in the army for two.

1966 - Walesa is employed as an electrician at the huge Lenin shipyard in Gdansk. He marries Miroslawa Danuta Golos in 1969. The couple will have eight children.

1968 - The head of the ruling Polish United Workers' Party (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza - PZPR), Wladyslaw Gomulka, supports the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Soviet forces sent to suppress the reformist government of Alexander Dubcek. Polish students inspired by the so-called 'Prague Spring' demonstrate for greater freedoms in Poland but are attacked by the police.

1970 - When the PZPR decides to increase food prices, riots break out. On 17 December 44 shipyard workers are killed and 1,000 injured, 200 seriously, when soldiers fire on protesters in the cities of Gdynia, Gdansk, Szczecin and Elblag. The incident leads to the removal of Gomulka as head of the PZPR. The price rises are withdrawn. Walesa emerges as one of the leaders of the shipyard workers and is briefly detained.

Following Gomulka's removal, a new-look PZPR attempts to revive the economy by borrowing heavily from the West to upgrade Poland's capacity to produce export goods. The program pays short-term dividends but ends by saddling the country with enormous foreign debts. By the mid-1970s Poland's economy is in a terminal decline.

1976 - Fresh protests break out when the PZPR again attempts to raise the price of food. Walesa again helps organise the shipyard workers. He loses his job as a result and is forced to earn his living by taking temporary work. However, the protests succeed and the price rises are again withdrawn.

During the year, the workers receive organised backing when a group of intellectuals form the Committee for Defence of Workers (Komitet Obrony Robotników - KOR). Students form the Committee for Student Solidarity. Together the committees intensify pressure on the PZPR for liberal reform. The Roman Catholic Church also begins to speak out more stridently against the regime.

1978 - With other activists, Walesa begins to organise independent trade unions and takes part in many union actions on the Baltic Sea coast. He is kept under surveillance by the state security service and frequently detained.

The role of the Catholic Church in the struggle for social reform is further raised when the archbishop of Kraków, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, is made Pope, taking the name John Paul II. When he visits Poland the following year the authority of the Church is raised further still.

1980 - In July further increases in food prices and the imposition of wage controls spark another round of protests and strikes. This time the workers occupy the factories where they are employed. On 14 August Walesa climbs the fence of the Lenin shipyard to join the workers inside. The workers take control of the yard and elect Walesa head of a strike committee to negotiate with management.

The strikers' demands are met three days later but the men stay out in solidarity with workers elsewhere in Gdansk. Walesa is put in charge of the Interfactory Strike Committee, which links 500,000 workers from the Baltic coast to the coal-mining centre of Silesia, with the Lenin shipyard acting as the heart. The committee calls for the right for workers to strike and form independent trade unions and proclaims a general strike.

As the strike wears on the list of demands expands into "the 21 postulates." Written out by hand and hung from the shipyard gates on two wooden boards, the list now includes demands for freedom of speech, the release of political prisoners, and end to censorship, and religious freedom.

The government buckles on 31 August and signs the 'Gdansk Agreement' giving workers the right to strike and to organise freely and independently. When 10 million workers and farmers, or about a quarter of the population, join semiautonomous unions in response, the Interfactory Strike Committee is transformed into a national federation of unions and named Solidarnosc (Solidarity).

Solidarity is officially formed in September and recognised by the government in October, becoming the country's first legally recognised independent trade union since the end of the Second World War. The standing of Solidarity is further enhanced when, with the encouragement of the Pope, it receives the backing of the Catholic Church.

An easing of censorship by the government creates a renaissance of free speech. Solidarity's weekly newspaper reaches a nationwide circulation of 500,000. Previously banned authors are published again. Political films and television programs are produced and screened. New passport laws allow greater freedom of movement. Walesa subsequently travels to Italy, Japan, Sweden, France and Switzerland as guest of the International Labour Organisation.

However, despite the Gdansk Agreement, the government does all it can to restrict Solidarity's autonomy, leading to numerous showdowns and further strikes. The stakes are raised higher with the formation of Rural Solidarity, which calls on the regime to recognise the contribution of private farmers.

Meanwhile, Walesa councils moderation and spends much time travelling the country to argue his case directly with workers. He advocates cooperation with the government and the gradual introduction of reforms that will not antagonise the Soviet Union, a position that puts him at odds with Solidarity's militant wing.

"Why did we do all of it?" Walesa later says of Solidarity's defiance of the government. "To launch a new epoch, one without divisions. Without one shot, our generation was able to do it."

1981 - In January Walesa is received by Pope John Paul II in the Vatican.

On 9 February General Wojciech Jaruzelski, commander in chief of the Polish armed forces, is made head of the government.

Solidarity holds its first national congress in September at Gdansk. Walesa is elected as the movement's chairman and chief spokesman, a position he holds until 1990, although he does not escape criticism for his willingness to compromise with the government without consulting the rank and file. The congress calls for a more active role for Solidarity in the reform process.

On 18 October Jaruzelski becomes leader of the PZPR. He is now head of the party, the government and the army. On 4 November, at a meeting with Walesa and Roman Catholic Archbishop Jozef Glemp, Jaruzelski offers of open negotiations with Solidarity on a wide range of social issues. However, his government, under internal strain and fearing an economic collapse and Soviet armed intervention, reverses its position and breaks off all negotiations with Solidarity.

On 12 December radicals in Solidarity call for a national referendum on the future of the communist government and a reappraisal of Poland's military alliance with the Soviet Union. Jaruzelski now has an excuse for direct action.

On 13 December martial law is imposed and troops are deployed around the country. Soldiers and police put down any resistance from the workforce. Civil liberties are restricted and universities are closed. Solidarity is outlawed and thousands of its members and most of its leaders, including Walesa, are arrested. Taken from his apartment in Gdansk at 3 a.m. and transported to a government "guesthouse" south of Warsaw, Walesa is detained for nearly a year.

Meanwhile, Walesa is named 'Time' magazine's person of the year. "Lech Walesa is a man of emotion, not of logic or analysis," the magazine says. "So was the movement which he all but lost control of in the end, guided more by hope and passion than by rationality. That was the crusade's strength - and its weakness. What had begun as Poland's year of liberty ended dramatically in violence, bloodshed and repression."

1982 - Walesa is released in November and reinstated at the Gdansk shipyards, although he remains under surveillance. He is described by the regime as the "former leader of a former union." Solidarity continues to function underground, but begins to split into factions. Radicals in the movement form Fighting Solidarity. The moderates group around Walesa and form the Citizens' Committee.

1983 - Martial law is lifted in July, although many restrictions continue.

In October it is announced that Walesa will receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution towards establishing "universal freedom of organisation in all countries." However, fearing he will not be readmitted to the country if he leaves, he does not travel to Oslo for the presentation ceremony held on 10 December. His wife, Danuta, accepts the prize on his behalf.

Presenting the award, the chairman of the Nobel Committee says, "Lech Walesa's contribution is more than a domestic Polish concern; the solidarity for which he is spokesman is an expression of precisely the concept of being at one with humanity; therefore he belongs to us all. The world has heard his voice and understood his message; the Nobel Peace Prize is merely a confirmation of this.

"Lech Walesa has made the name 'Solidarity' more than an expression of the unity of a group campaigning for special interests. Solidarity has come to represent the determination to resolve conflicts and obliterate disagreement through peaceful negotiation, where all involved meet with a mutual respect for one another's integrity. ...

"It is the Committee's opinion that he stands as an inspiration and a shining example to all those who, under different conditions, fight for freedom and humanity. ... Lech Walesa has made humanity bigger and more inviolable. ... The presentation of the Peace Prize to him today is a homage to the power of victory which abides in one person's belief, in his vision and in his courage to follow his call."

Full copy of the presentation speech.

The Polish Government criticises the granting of the award, saying it is politically motivated.

1984 - The regime is further discredited when the secret police abduct and murder Father Jerzy Popieluszko, the spiritual adviser to Solidarity.

1985 - Mikhail Gorbachev becomes the leader of the Soviet Union. His reform polices of "glasnost" and "perestroika" remove the threat of armed Soviet intervention in the affairs of its Eastern European satellites and will eventually lead to the break-up of the Soviet Union. Poland is now free to follow its own path of reform. Political prisoners are released, opposition groups are formed, and Solidarity, though still illegal, begins to operate openly.

1988 - Economic conditions in Poland continue to deteriorate. A new wave of labour unrest forces the government to negotiate with Walesa and other Solidarity leaders.

1989 - "Roundtable talks" between the PZPR, Solidarity's Citizens' Committee, and other opposition groups are held in February 1989, lasting for 59 days. Walesa acts as the chairman of the opposition delegation. He also supports the talks in speeches given around the country and meets with government representatives. The talks result in a compromise.

Solidarity is legalised, a senate is reintroduced to the parliament with the power to veto decisions by the Sejm (lower house), the office of president of Poland is created, and Solidarity is allowed to run candidates in free elections for a limited number of parliamentary seats. However, 65% of the seats will remain with the PZPR and its minority partners.

At elections held in June Solidarity wins all of the 161 lower house seats it has been allowed to contest and 99 of the 100 upper house seats. When Walesa refuses to allow Solidarity to become the minor party in a coalition with the communists, the parliament is forced to accept a Solidarity-led government committed to dismantling the communist system and replacing it with a Western-style democracy and a free-market economy.

Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a longtime Solidarity adviser, becomes the first noncommunist Polish prime minister since 1944. On 19 July the parliament elects General Jaruzelski as the first president of the new Poland.

Walesa stays out of government, remaining as leader of Solidarity, but contests the presidency the following year. In November he becomes the third person in history to address a joint session of the United States Congress.

1990 - The PZPR is formally dissolved in January. Solidarity is declared an official political party.

Walesa is reelected Solidarity chairman at the movement's second national congress held in April, receiving 77.5% of the votes. However, by the time of the local elections in May, Solidarity has splintered. The fractures widen when Walesa begins to criticise the Mazowiecki administration, calling for a hastening of reform and the purging of former communist appointees in the government.

Supporters of Walesa group into the Centre Alliance. The pro-Mazowiecki faction forms the Citizens' Movement for Democratic Action. The two groups come head to head when Jaruzelski announces his early retirement as president and both Walesa and Mazowiecki decide to contest the subsequent direct election for the post.

Walesa wins the presidency in the second round of a general election held on 10 December. He has won 75% of the vote in the first truly free and fair election held in Poland since the start the Second World War.

In his first address as president elect he pledges that the new Poland will offer work to everyone. "An economically developed Poland will be a pillar of peace in Europe," he says, "But a poor Poland will face a wall of resentment at all its borders."

Walesa offers the post of prime minister to Jan Bielecki, the leader of a small reformist party, on the condition that he will have the right to oversee the selection of the Cabinet. This and other interventions in the running of the parliament begin to raise concerns about the breath of Walesa's powers. His popularity is further hit when the Bielecki administration proves unable to speed economic reform and improve government services.

By the middle of the year the parliament has ceased to function as an effective legislator. Walesa calls for elections in the first half of 1991 but is forced by the parliament to accept a later date and a proportional representation voting system that will do nothing to alleviate parliamentary factionalism.

1991 - Poland holds its first free parliamentary elections in October. However, only 43% of the electorate vote. Twenty-nine parties win seats in the new parliament, but none receives more than 14% of the votes cast. The resultant coalition government is inherently unstable and lasts only until June 1992.

1992 - A new but incomplete constitution, the so-called 'Little Constitution' is ratified in October. The 'Little Constitution' defines the roles of the president and parliament and aims to focus political activity away from factional bickering and towards reform and development of the Polish economy.

Meanwhile, Solidarity effectively ceases to exist as a unifying political movement. In October all Russian combat troops stationed in Poland are withdrawn. By the end of 1993 all Russian forces have left.

1993 - When the government is toppled by a parliamentary no-confidence vote in the middle of the year, Walesa dissolves the parliament and calls a new election. The subsequent vote sees the Polish electorate repudiate reformist parties and opt for those linked to the former communist regime, including the Alliance of the Democratic Left (Sojusz Lewicy Demokratycznej - SLD).

Walesa, who had pushed market reform, loses much of his influence following the poor showing of parties born from the Solidarity movement. However, he is still able to pressure the SLD into forming a coalition government with the Polish Peasant Party.

Walesa's reputation is further tarnished by allegations that he collaborated with the secret police during the communist era. Walesa strongly denies the claims and in 2000 a Polish court rules that he had never been an agent for the state security services. However the allegations continue to resurface.

1995 - Walesa seeks reelection as president in November but is narrowly defeated by the former communist Aleksander Kwasniewski, head of the SLD.

"I built democracy and then I handed it all over to democracy," Walesa later says of the defeat. "I had my proposals, but the nation gave six percent to my proposals and chose Kwasniewski."

In December Walesa establishes the Foundation Lech Walesa Institute. The institute seeks to consolidate democracy and the free-market economy in Poland and permanently integrate Poland into European structures.

1995 - Walesa creates and leads a new political party, Christian Democracy of the 3rd Polish Republic.

2000 - He again runs for the presidency but, having lost the support of the public, receives less than one per cent of the vote.

2003 - In August the "21 postulates", the handwritten list of demands pasted to wooden boards and hung from the Gdansk shipyard gates during the strike of 1980, are registered as historic documents in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation's "memory of the world" catalogue. The boards with their list are reported to be still hanging from the gates.

On 18 September Walesa turns to the subject of political repression in Cuba, publishing an open letter with Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, and Arpad Goncz, former president of Hungary.

Titled 'Building a Free Cuba', the letter states in part, "It is the responsibility of the democratic world to support representatives of the Cuban opposition, regardless of how long the Cuban Stalinists cling to power. The Cuban opposition must have the same international support as did the representatives of political dissent in Europe when it stood divided. Statements of condemnation for the government's repression, combined with specific diplomatic steps coming from Europe, Latin America and the United States, would be suitable means of exerting pressure on the regime in Cuba."

2004 - On 26 November Walesa travels to Ukraine to help mediate a dispute over the result of the country's presidential election. Addressing a crowd of demonstrators in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, Walesa says, "The whole of my life I fought for ideals. The situation in Poland was probably more difficult than yours. When I look at your enthusiasm, your engagement, I'm sure it will end in your victory."

Walesa later claims that he helped avert a violent confrontation over the election result by convincing the incumbent president, Viktor Yanukovich, to revoke an order to the armed forces to crack down on the demonstrators.

"I told (Yanukovich): 'You will lose. You have no chance to win. The only choice you have is between defeat with bloodshed and defeat without'," Walesa says.

The dispute is eventually peacefully resolved. Yanukovich agrees to a rerun of the election, which this time is won by opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko.

2005 - During celebrations held at the end of August to mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of Solidarity, Walesa praises the role of Pope John Paul II in inspiring the movement.

"He did not tell us to make a revolution, he did not call for a coup, but he was so suggestive that we all had to define ourselves," Walesa says.

"It was in us, in our hearts and minds that something started that changed the face of this earth. ... Irrespective of today's judgement and the price we had to pay in this generation, we were able to close an epoch of divisions, different blocs and borders, opening the way for an era of globalisation."

Walesa also receives praise, with Poland's current president and former communist, Aleksander Kwasniewski, saying, "We all live in a free Poland, and there would be no free Poland without you. ... Twenty-five years ago, I did not stand on the same side together with you, but today I have no doubts that it was your vision of Poland which led us in the right direction."

German President Horst Koehler says the success of the Solidarity movement "led to the unification of Europe, led to a united Germany. ... Poles freed not just themselves - they launched a process which radiates until today."

The celebrations are marked by Walesa's announcement of his resignation from Solidarity, which now functions mainly as a trade union. "From a logical point of view there is no room for me here," he says.

"I work outside of Poland's borders. ... Solidarity has its new leader and I have not been an electrician for 25 years. ... Today I only try to share my experience, pass it on and do something good for the world."

Also during the celebrations, Walesa and other leaders sign the founding act for the European Solidarity Centre, an institute in Gdansk that will work to promote democracy, monitor human rights in the world and commemorate Solidarity's legacy.

2007 - In November Walesa reveals he is to undergo a heart transplant, saying he could die without the operation. Earlier in the year he had been fitted with a pacemaker.

2008 - Allegations that Walesa collaborated with the secret police during the 1970s are resurrected in June with the publication of a new book.

Titled 'The SB and Lech Walesa' (SB stands for Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa, or secret police), the books claims that Walesa "informed police several dozen times" about activities at the Gdansk shipyards and was paid for his services.

Walesa strongly denies the allegations, saying they were "worthy of the dustbin" and a "fairy tale."

"Nothing like that happened. I had no influence over what the secret police did and wrote. You will not find any signature of mine agreeing to collaborate anywhere. This is all insinuation and part of the communist secret service campaign against me," Walesa tells BBC News.

"They have created this little fairy tale that Lech Walesa was a brave fighter but in his youth he had a moment of weakness and worked for the secret police. They had to turn up something about me, so they went into ancient history, making it difficult to prove one way or the other."

Later evidence shows that the documents on which the allegations are based were forged by the secret police.

2013 - On 1 March Walesa tells a Polish television station that he believes homosexuals have no right to sit on the front benches in parliament but instead should sit at the back "or even behind a wall."

"They have to know that they are a minority and adjust to smaller things, and not rise to the greatest heights ... spoiling things for the others and taking from the majority," he says.

"I don't agree to this and I will never agree to it. A minority should not impose itself on the majority."

The comments are condemned by liberal Poles.

Comment: Lech Walesa is a rough diamond. Often described as blunt and domineering his passion and determination caught the imagination of the Polish people in the 1970s and 80s and saw him become the fulcrum of their battle for independence. His single-minded abrasiveness saw him fall out of favour once the fight was won. He was a man for his time, but time has since passed Walesa by.