Walesa puts on show of Solidarity

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The Independent Online

Central Europe Correspondent

President Lech Walesa of Poland has offered his services as mediator in the increasingly bitter confrontation between the government and the Solidarity trade union, which he led in the struggle against Communism.

He made his offer over the weekend after a clash between police and Solidarity protesters in Warsaw left more than 30 people injured. At the same time he urged Jozef Oleksy, the Prime Minister, to resign if he could not resolve the crisis quickly. Friday's clash was the most violent since the overthrow of Communist rule in 1989.

Now Solidarity is demanding protection from mass unemployment. Police said the trouble started after 10,000 activists began throwing stones, bolts and bags filled with paint at a government building. According to the union, which bused in many of the demonstrators from the depressed region of Silesia, the police started the trouble.

In the immediate heat of battle, some were tempted to draw parallels with the struggles involving the Walesa-led Solidarity of the early 1980s. Then as now, the protesters were united in their hatred of Communism (or the reformed variety as represented by the government of Mr Oleksy). Then as now, the police resorted to heavy-handed tactics: truncheons, tear- gas and water cannon.

But as the dust began to settle, observers pointed out that there was no question of history being about to repeat itself.

"Back in 1980, when people took to the streets, their actions were approved by the whole of society. Today they are not. And those that participate in these protests behave much more aggressively," said Piotr Pacewicz, political editor of the Gazeta Wyborcza.

At its peak, Solidarity boasted a membership of 10 million, and, in addition to economic demands, pressed for a range of political freedoms. Today the union's membership is less than two million and its political role is greatly diminished.

There is also a fundamental inconsistency in its position. While much of its rhetoric remains virulently anti-Communist, the union devotes all its energy to fighting for long-discredited socialist economic policies: job guarantees, higher wages and social-welfare benefits for all.

Such inconsistencies, however, are unlikely to deter Mr Walesa. Having fallen out with the union for refusing to support his candidates in the 1993 parliamentary elections, the former shipyard electrician is now assiduously courting it in the run-up to presidential elections due later this year.

If he is able to act as a mediator in the current conflict, Mr Walesa may be rewarded with the backing of his old union allies, giving him the power-base from which he hopes to launch his bid for a second term. If Mr Oleksy, as he has so far indicated, decides to try to resolve the dispute alone, the President will seek to increase tension between the two sides as much as possible. He will then retire to the presidential palace to reap the political reward.