Poles face long hot summer of discontent

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The Independent Online
It may already have been touching 30C, but the crowd gathered outside the Polish Sejm (parliament) was just warming up. "Down with the Reds!" declared one disgruntled secondary-school teacher. "Poland, wake up!" yelled another.

Near by an effigy of a scarecrow-like woman bearing the label "Poverty" was waved in the air. Then the sacred chant began: "Solidarnosc ... Solidarnosc" - the rallying-cry of the Solidarity trade union.

The teachers and nurses' protest was one of several staged by Solidarity over the past two weeks as part of a desperate attempt to halt what it sees as the ever-decreasing living standards of its members and the significance of the union itself. More are planned. In Warsaw, the talk already is of a long hot summer of discontent.

"There are a lot of poor people who feel they have been degraded as a result of the changes over the past five years," said Adam Bromke, a political scientist. "But there is a great danger that their resentment could be manipulated."

According to some observers, it has been already. Ten days ago, a demonstration staged by 10,000 miners and steelworkers exploded into violence in the centre of Warsaw and was only brought under control after police resorted to tear-gas and water-cannon. Although each side claims the trouble was started by the other, the clashes - the first since 1989 - were viewed as an alarming development. They also spawned conspiracy theories, particularly given the fact that Poland faces a presidential election in autumn.

Some observers say a prolonged period of social unrest could help the former Solidarity leader, Lech Walesa, in his attempt to be re-elected for a second presidential term. In a climate of instability, he could step forward as the man to restore order. Mr Walesa, trailing in the polls, has been courting Solidarity of late. Having fallen out with his former union allies in 1993, he now seeks their support for his campaign. While not condoning last month's violence, he has expressed broad sympathy with Solidarity's demands for higher wages and social-security payouts.

But for most Solidarity rank-and-file he is no longer seen as the great saviour. After almost five years as president, they feel he has let them down. "Look at this; I am now worse off than in 1989," complained Jolanta Stwora, a nurse, brandishing a pay-slip revealing a monthly salary of 226 zlotys (pounds 62). "Is this what it was all for?"