Russia stays away as Poland celebrates 25 years of Solidarity

The democratically elected leaders of former Soviet republics will be there. But the President of Russia will not. It isan anniversary the Kremlin would rather forget.

Foreign delegations are making their way to Poland today to pay their respects at events marking the 25th anniversary of the birth of Solidarity, the first free trade union of Communist eastern Europe.

Solidarity's former leader Lech Walesa, the electrician turned president who transformed the workers' organisation into a rival for political power with the Communist Party, will make a speech claiming that the Solidarity movement ended the Cold War, set hundreds of millions of people free far beyond the borders of Poland, and enabled the creation of a truly united Europe.

Twenty-nine delegations have confirmed their participation in the climax of the anniversary events in the port city of Gdansk, set for Wednesday. Most of the presidents and prime ministers expected are from countries that have shrugged off Moscow-backed Communist regimes.

An organiser of the Solidarity anniversary celebrations, who asked not to be named, told The Independent that the Russian government has been invited to send a delegation but that no response had yet been received.

Vaclaw Havel, the former president of the Czech Republic who led his country's "velvet revolution" towards democracy in 1989, has publicly thanked Poland for beginning the popular struggle against Communism in 1980, far earlier than any country in the region. There wasn't even a small sign of changes in Czechoslovakia then," Mr Havel said on Friday. "But the events in Poland ... had a definite influence on future changes here and in other countries from the Communist bloc."

The memorial event has already become the subject of fierce debate in Poland, where the transition from Communism to capitalism remains an open issue.

The Gdansk shipyard where the Solidarity trade union was formed to defend the rights of workers has shed 87.5 per cent of its workforce since 1980. Poland's working class suffered badly during years of "electric shock" capitalist reforms in the 1980s, and unemployment stands at about 18 per cent, the worst rate in the EU.

Some Poles see Solidarity's final victory in 1989 as a shameful compromise by the trade union leadership with tyrants, and resent the presence of President Alexander Kwasniewski, himself a former Communist, at what has been billed a celebration of freedom.

Morover, the guest list of international VIPs overtly reflects Poland's self-professed post-Cold War role as a "champion of freedom".

Presidents Michael Saakashvili of Georgia and Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine, both victors in recent pro-Western "people's revolutions" will attend to give thanks for Solidarity's legacy. The US delegation is to be led by James Baker, the former secretary of state, and will include Daniel Fried, President Bush's assistant secretary of state for European affairs.

Relations between Poland, the former Communist bloc's largest and most vocal EU member, and the increasingly authoritarian Russian government of Vladimir Putin are at an all-time low. Beyond frequent disagreements about the history of the Second World War and the Cold War, the two countries are competing for influence in Belarus, which lies between Russia and Poland.

Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus's Moscow-backed dictator, accuses Poland of fomenting a Solidarity-style democracy movement in his country.

At Moscow's VE Day celebrations in May, Mr Putin decorated General Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland's last Soviet-backed leader and Mr Walesa's deadly rival.

On Friday, 100,000 revellers attended a concert by Jean-Michel Jarre in the Gdansk shipyard, which featured laser effects and fireworks. At the climax, Jarre brought Mr Walesa on to the stage to rapturous applause, a moment that was immediately satirised in Poland's newspapers.

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