Poles apart: why Lech Walesa has left solidarity after 26 years

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First there were just grainy black and white newspaper shots of an impish-looking man sporting a huge walrus moustache and a tattered checked shirt. A cigarette was permanently stuck in his fist as he addressed a vast crowd of dishevelled shipyard workers in a remote Baltic seaside town somewhere deep behind the Iron Curtain.

It was 26 years ago this month, and the name of the individual in question was as unpronounceable to British mouths as the city he was speaking from. Yet it was only a matter of days before the world became familiar with Lech Walesa and "Solidarnosc", or Solidarity, the trade union movement he founded in Gdansk.

The Polish port's odd-jobbing electrician with the gift of the gab was to go on to become one of the key figures of the 20th century. Under Walesa, Solidarity set a tide of popular protest in motion that eventually dragged Poland out of Communism, with the rest of Iron Curtain Europe in hot pursuit only months later.

Walesa was subsequently rewarded for his Herculean achievement. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 and elected his country's first post-Communist president in 1990.

But this week, a chapter in his extraordinary biography was brought to a close with the announcement that he has left the Solidarity union he founded, for good. His decision was not entirely unexpected: "This is no longer my union. This is a different era, there are different people and different problems," he remarked last year during celebrations marking Solidarity's 25th anniversary. But this week the reasons for his departure became clear. Walesa admitted he had fallen out with two of Solidarity's former leading lights - Poland's controversial President and Prime Minister, twin brothers Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

The Kaczynski twins have provoked a storm of protest in Poland and abroad because of their perceived illiberal attitudes towards homosexuality, the European Union, and Poland's Communist past. Walesa's decision to quit Solidarity was motivated by the Kaczynski administration's current, hotly disputed policy, under which all files of Poland's former communist secret police are to be made public.

Walesa castigated the twins, saying that they always harboured "conspiracy theories." Of President Kaczynski he said: "His approach is first to destroy and then think about what to build."

As a snub to the brothers, Walesa will not be going to Solidarity's 26th anniversary celebrations in Poland this month. Yet the debt the organisation and Poland owes to the union's founder is clearly immeasurable.

These days Gdansk is a lively, beautiful and tourist-packed town. It is almost impossible to imagine what it was like in 1980 when Walesa climbed over a wall at the city's dreary, smoke blackened Lenin shipyard to launch Solidarity. The endless queues outside near-empty food shops, the shabby buildings stinking of garbage and disinfectant, the putt-putting two-stroke cars and the constant fear of secret police informers have gone forever.

Walesa did not start the Lenin shipyard strike of 1980 that sparked Solidarity's birth. The dispute arose over a decision by the shipyard management to sack a troublesome crane driver called Anna Walentynowicz, who had been fighting the bosses over better pay and conditions, and had been demanding that the shipyard erect a monument dedicated to protesting workers who were shot dead by communist militia during the 1970s. Small groups of workers backed Ms Walentynowicz by putting up posters. The shipyard management responded by tearing them down. There was an uneasy standoff until a small, chain-smoking electrician got up on a crate to address the workers.

"Ladies and gentlemen, you know me, Lech Walesa. I was sacked for making the same protests as Anna. This time we will make sure she keeps her job," he said. The date was 14 August 1980, and the Lenin shipyard strike, the first by what was also to become the first free trade union in Communist-controlled eastern Europe, was under way.

Within days, the strikes had spread throughout Poland. Walesa had stepped up the union's claims for better pay to include the hitherto unthinkable demand for the right to form free trade unions and negotiate conditions on an independent basis.

By the end of August, the humiliated communist government of General Wojciech Jaruzelski was forced to capitulate. The Gdansk agreement of 31 August gave Solidarity the right, unprecedented in communist Europe, to strike and organise itself as an independent union.

The support given to Solidarity by the then recently elected Polish Pope, John Paul II was, as Walesa later put it, "a gift from heaven". He added: "Until he became Pope, I had 10 members of an independent union in Gdansk. Afterwards I had 10 million." Walesa has remained a staunch Catholic to this day. On his lapel, he wears the badge of one of the faith's Polish icons, the Black Madonna of Czestochowa.

His life, like that of the Pope, was shaped by the experience of Communism. He was born to a family of peasant farmers in 1943 and arrived in Gdansk in the late 1960s, after compulsory military service, to work as an electrician.

He was shocked by the brutal repression of workers' protests in 1970s Poland, when he made his first contacts with dissident opposition groups. He became a shop steward, but was sacked for his anti-state behaviour and earned a living doing odd jobs.

Solidarity, his creation, enjoyed a heyday of freedom in the 16 months that followed August 1980. But the world looked on with a mixture of admiration and trepidation as it struggled to coexist with a communist government that lived constantly with the veiled threat of invasion by the Soviet Union.

Walesa travelled abroad as a guest of the International Labour Movement, and in January 1981 was received by Pope John Paul II. But by December 1981, Prime Minister Jaruzelski's nerve broke, and Poland's communist government, now seriously worried about an imminent Soviet invasion, imposed martial law, suspended Solidarity, locked up many of its leaders and put Walesa under "house arrest" in a remote country mansion.

Yet Solidarity refused to die. Walesa remained its undisputed leader even in captivity, and what was left of the union's leadership stayed alive by going underground. In November 1982, he was finally released and reinstated at the Gdansk shipyard.

But although martial law was lifted nine months later in July 1983, its restrictions remained in force. For many, the blow was softened the same year when Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The award, fiercely attacked by Poland's communist regime, was seen by many as international recognition for Solidarity.

The combination of worsening economic conditions in Poland, and the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev in the Kremlin, finally forced the increasingly unpopular Jaruzelski government to back down and negotiate with Solidarity. In 1988 there was another occupation strike in the Lenin shipyard. A few months later Poland's Communists entered talks with Solidarity leaders at the country's first round-table discussions, in 1989.

In August, nine years after Walesa climbed over the shipyard wall, Poland held elections which gave the country its first non-communist government in more than 40 years. The Berlin Wall fell in November and by the end of 1989 much of eastern Europe had shaken off the communist yoke.

It was inevitable that Walesa would become democratic Poland's first president. By 1989, the man once dismissed by the communist leadership as "the electrician" had become the nation's undisputed hero. Yet Walesa did not shine in the post that he held until 1995.

Deprived of his natural communist enemies, President Walesa's outspoken style did not seem to fit with the new democracy. He stumbled when delivering long speeches, and was frequently portrayed in Poland's new free press as a coarse, blundering buffoon, not least because his closest adviser was his chauffeur, with whom he played long games of table tennis. On a visit to Britain, he stayed with the Queen at Windsor Castle. He quipped afterwards that the bed was so big that "I couldn't find my wife". Poland's intellectuals sniggered.

Walesa's critics accused him of being a "president with an axe", and while he was pilloried for developing close links with the military and the security services, he was accused by some of wanting to introduce a form of Catholic dictatorship in Poland. It was perhaps the irony of ironies that in the country's presidential election of 1995, Walesa was defeated by former Communist Aleksander Kwasniewski.

Walesa went back to Gdansk to live with his wife, Danuta, and his eight children. Nowadays he gives interviews from behind his desk at his headquarters in the city, which are decorated with a Polish eagle, a crucifix and a miniature statue of the country's legendary inter-war leader Marshall Pilsudski.

Like Gorbachev and Churchill, he has found its difficult to accept that he has now become an historical figure. His decision to quit Solidarity, apart from being a stinging rebuke to the Kaczynski government, is perhaps a sign that he has finally come to terms with his role. Yet it is unlikely that Poland or the rest of former communist Europe would have become what they are without him.