Walesa cruises into shipyard

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The Independent Online
Lech Walesa, the world's most famous electrician, yesterday returned to the Gdansk shipyard where he made history to take up his old job - kept open for him during the five years in which he served as President of Poland.

It was a surreal home-coming. Escorted by a bodyguard, the now portly Mr Walesa swept through the shipyard gates in a chauffeur-driven black Mercedes shortly after 6.30am.

Instead of getting out the screwdrivers, Mr Walesa's first day back consisted of meeting the shipyard manager, a press conference and a nostalgic return to the hall where the Solidarity trade union was legalised in the historic Gdansk Accords of August 1980.

"This hall represents for me the best, but also the most difficult moments of my life," said Mr Walesa, the founder of Solidarity and its leader in the struggle which led to the final overthrow of the Communist regime in 1989.

Ostensibly, Mr Walesa, who was given the entry pass number 61878, wants his old job back because he needs money. Although as a former president he is entitled to a car and a bodyguard, he does not receive a state pension - a state of affairs he blames on the "malice" of Poland's government of former Communists.

As an electrician, Mr Walesa will earn a monthly salary of some 600 zlotys (pounds 170), a tenth of what he earned as President and half that earned by his chauffeur. He admits it will not pay the rent, but with a wife and family of eight to support, he says every bit will help.

After being given the customary medical examination and an update on the yard's safety procedures, Mr Walesa is expected later this week to join his old colleagues in the workshop where he spent six years fixing electric trolleys under the supervision of the Communist secret police.

Old workmates yesterday recalled Mr Walesa as an amiable colleague and a good worker, but sensed there was more to Mr Walesa's return than met the eye. "I don't know what is going on ... Why make such a fool of himself?" said a shipyard worker, Zbigniew Zurek.

Mr Walesa's motives are complex. While wanting to discredit the government and his successor, Aleksander Kwasniewski, he is perhaps seeking to remind people of his working-class credentials.

At only 52, he has made it clear he has not renounced his political ambitions. His main aim now is to unify Poland's fractured centre and right before parliamentary elections take place next year.

In talks with his old shipyard bosses, Mr Walesa has already negotiated one day off a week to pursue his political goals and has also managed to get time off next week for a trip to the US where he will deliver a series of well-paid lectures.

Mr Walesa promised yesterday that while he is in the US he will draw people's attention to the plight of the Gdansk shipyard, which is currently heavily in debt and in search of private investors.