Jacek Kuron

Dissident who became a popular minister in Poland's first post-Communist government

Monday 21 June 2004 00:00 BST

Jacek Kuron, human rights campaigner and politician: born Lvov, Poland 3 March 1934; Minister of Labour and Social Policy 1989-1991, 1992-93; twice married (one son); died Warsaw 17 June 2004.

From Communist-era dissident to Minister of Labour in Poland's first post-Communist government in 1989, the political activist Jacek Kuron played a key role in his country's democratic transformation. His contribution was crucial for two main reasons.

As a thinker and organiser, Kuron was instrumental in bringing together the two previously separate strands of industrial unrest and intellectual opposition to the Communist regime when he and a handful of fellow activists founded the Workers' Defence Committee (KOR) in 1976. Four years later KOR helped give birth to the Solidarity trade union - the first mass independent social organisation in the Communist world - until it was banned under martial law at the end of 1981.

Perhaps the most energetic figure among the dissidents, Kuron was also remarkable for his ability to communicate with the public. That was his second contribution. The plain-speaking Kuron lacked the often patronising attitudes of his fellow intellectuals in their dealings with the workers.

Even after he became a minister in post-Communist Poland, the chain-smoking, gravel-voiced and always casually dressed Kuron remained true to his former character. When he was awarded the Légion d'honneur, the French ambassador in Warsaw, pinning it on his denim jacket, jokingly praised Kuron's appropriate dress sense, recalling that the material had originated from Nimes in France.

Kuron's common touch continued to endear him to the Polish public. Throughout the political turmoil of the early 1990s when the victorious Solidarity disintegrated into different factions, Kuron emerged from opinion polls as the most trusted - and often the most popular - politician.

Kuron was born in 1934 in the eastern Polish city of Lvov (now in Ukraine) into a pro-socialist family. In his youth he was a fervent Communist and was a leader of their Red Scouts. But as a lecturer he became increasingly disenchanted with Communist rule and, along with a university colleague, Karol Modzelewski, published an "Open Letter to the Party" (1965) which denounced the regime for its authoritarian and bureaucratic character. That Trotskyist critique - and the call for a genuine workers' revolution - earned Kuron three years in jail.

Kuron went to prison a Marxist and emerged from it as an independent socialist thinker. But he didn't stay free for long. He was sentenced to a further three and a half years for taking part in the student movement of 1968. That event generated little support among the industrial workers. Two years later, when shipyard workers in Gdansk and other Baltic ports protested against price rises, it was the turn of the intellectuals to turn their backs on the workers.

Kuron, who was still in jail at the time, began to realise that the regime could pick off one discontented group in society after another if they failed to collaborate. So he became a pioneer among dissidents in forging links with the factory workforce. The opportunity came in 1976 when the authorities used a mixture of imprisonment, mass dismissals and police brutality to deal with another bout of workers' unrest at factories in Warsaw and Radom in south-west Poland.

Kuron and a dozen other dissidents set up KOR to provide legal, medical and financial aid to the workers and their families who had been victimised by the authorities. His apartment became the nerve-centre for organising KOR's activities - and later for meetings of the "Flying University" where academics barred by the authorities from the universities could lecture on topics that were treated as taboo elsewhere.

As an organiser in KOR's ranks, Kuron had no rivals. "I prefer doing things rather than talking about them," as he later put it. But Kuron was also a far-sighted thinker who realised that challenging Poland's Communist regime head-on was doomed to disaster. He was among those who developed the idea of creating islands of autonomous activity among trade unions, farmers, professional groups and in the area of uncensored alternative publishing - thereby gradually undermining the totalitarian character of the Communist system.

Kuron was able to encapsulate such ideas in catchy slogans. During the protests in Radom, angry workers had set fire to the building of the local Communist Party committee. Kuron later told them: "Don't burn committees: found your own."

That course of action came to fruition during the first Solidarity era when, starting in August 1980, for over a year the trade union led by the Gdansk electrician Lech Walesa gained the confidence and support of Polish society. As one of Walesa's chief advisers, Kuron was keen to steer Solidarity along a moderate course. It involved negotiating - and striking - for better pay, working conditions and social benefits, as well as for a freer society. In the process Solidarity gained a key role it what became a de facto power-sharing arrangement - without ever explicitly challenging the Communist Party's notional monopoly to rule which would have held out the danger of Soviet military intervention. It was a self-limiting revolution; or, as Kuron described it, "an evolutionary revolution".

In the end, it went too far for Poland's Communist leader, General Wojciech Jaruzelski. Kuron was among the thousands of Solidarity activists who were interned without trial under martial law in December 1981; and he was among the last batch to be released two and a half years later.

By then, with nine years behind bars, Kuron had become Poland's longest serving political prisoner. But no amount of imprisonment, beatings or threats could intimidate him. And as the foundations of Communism began to shake in Poland after Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms in the Kremlin, Kuron and other Solidarity activists became useful negotiating partners for General Jaruzelski at the round table talks in early 1989. These set the scene for that year's partially free elections, and a peaceful transition to democracy in Poland - and later elsewhere in central Europe.

Kuron served as Minister of Labour and Social Policy in the first Solidarity-led government. It was an unenviable task at a time when Leszek Balcerowicz, the Minister of Finance, was applying his "shock therapy" to Poland's uncompetitive command economy, resulting initially in large-scale unemployment and high inflation. Kuron did not hide behind his ministerial desk: his regular broadcasts were examples of a plain-speaking and honest approach that few other politicians could, or even wanted to, match.

Kuron also began to lay the foundations for a system of social welfare payments. These benefits were quickly named after him colloquially as "kuroniowka". And when he set up emergency soup kitchens, true to form he was the first to start ladling out the soup to the recipients. As Poles commented on the shock therapy treatment at the time, while Balcerowicz was performing the surgery, it was Kuron who acted as the anaesthetist.

In late 1990 there was a parting of the ways between the increasingly populist Walesa and the leading Solidarity intellectuals, including Kuron. As a result, Walesa's election as President led to the fall of the government. But two years later Kuron was back in his old ministerial post and at a time of short-lived administrations, he served a creditable total of nearly three years in government.

With opinion polls consistently putting Kuron ahead of all others as the most trusted politician, he entered the race for the presidency in 1995. But he finished a disappointing third as he lacked the mass loyalty Walesa had built up over the years or the resources that were available to the ex-Communist Aleksander Kwasniewski, who won the election.

By then, the harsh conditions Kuron had endured in jail and an unhealthy lifestyle had started to take their toll. As Kuron became progressively more ill over the years, he withdrew from public life.

Kuron's role in helping to bring about Poland's difficult transition to democracy was perhaps best summed up by Walesa, his long-time fellow activist and later political adversary. "Without Jacek it would have been impossible," he said after Kuron's death.

Gabriel Partos

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