History comes full circle for Walesa's old sparring partner

Missing persons: No 43; Wojciech Jaruzelski
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The Independent Online
With the obvious exception of Aleksander Kwasniewski, there was probably nobody in Poland who enjoyed last week's presidential election more than General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the country's last Communist leader. Mr Kwasniewski was one of the bright young hopefuls whose first taste of power- as youth and sports minister - came during the latter years of Gen Jaruzelski's rule.

His dramatic success was made all the sweeter by the fact that the man he defeated in the election was Lech Walesa, the former leader of the Solidarity movement which toppled Communism in Poland and the man who replaced Gen Jaruzelski as president in 1990.

It must have seemed as though history had come full circle. After humiliating defeats at the hands of Mr Walesa, the general had the satisfaction of seeing his old adversary getting his come-uppance.

And for all Mr Kwasniewski's claims to be a fully reformed Western-style social democrat, his victory marked the almost total rehabilitation of Poland's former Communists who, having won the largest number of seats in parliamentary elections in 1993, had now captured the presidency.

Gen Jaruzelski, who still sports the dark glasses that made him such a distinctive Cold War leader, did not want to crow. "There is now a chance for real understanding," he told Gazeta Wyborcza. "But instead of triumphalism on one side and a feeling of defeat on the other, there must be a prevailing sense that democracy won."

Gen Jaruzelski giving lectures on democracy? Was this the man who devoted almost all his career to defending a system of one-party rule? Was this the man who was defence minister in 1970 when troops fired on food-price rioters, and who, 11 years later, imposed martial law to crush Solidarity?

It was a bit rich. For many Poles, it simply rubbed salt in what were already very sore wounds and intensified the feeling that the old guard, having never properly been made to pay for the past, was now back in the driving seat.

Certainly Gen Jaruzelski, now 71, has not yet been brought to book over his past. Since losing power, he has found himself the subject of numerous investigations concerning the 1970 killings, the imposition of martial law and the strange disappearance of thousands of Central Committee files. None of these investigations, however, has led to a trial - and the chances of them ever doing so under a President Kwasniewski are considered small.

Apart from occasional appearances before investigating tribunals, Gen Jaruzelski has sought a low profile over the past five years, and spent much of his early retirement ensconced in his modest Warsaw villa writing his memoirs.

In his book, Why Martial Law?, he argued that in December 1981, in the grip of an economic crisis and a Solidarity-inspired strike wave, Poland was close to being invaded by the Soviet Union. His declaration of martial law, under which thousands of Solidarity activists, including Mr Walesa, were imprisoned or placed under house arrest, was the "lesser of two evils", he argued. And although he regretted (and apologised for) the suffering and deaths caused, he insisted that it could have been much worse.

A lot of Gen Jaruzelski's countrymen agree with him. Rather than reviling him, many see him as something of a national hero. When Why Martial Law? was published in 1993, it quickly became a best-seller and the general's popularity ratings soared.

In addition to pre-empting a possible Soviet invasion in 1981, many Poles also concede that, although he fought hard to maintain Communist Party rule, Gen Jaruzelski was able to recognise the end when it came. In early 1989, he went against many of the hardliners within his party to press for landmark round-table talks with Solidarity aimed at devising some form of power-sharing. In the partially free parliamentary elections of that year, Solidarity romped to victory, and within three months Poland had the first non-Communist government to be formed in Eastern Europe for over 40 years.

Adrian Bridge