Celebrating the democratic breakthroughs of 1989, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) recognized former president of Poland, Lech Wałęsa, for his unparalleled impact on the transformation of Europe at a reception in the U.S. Congress on Wednesday, November 13th. As leader of Solidarity, the mass movement for democracy and worker rights in Poland, Wałęsa set into motion the events that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of communism in Central Europe and the Soviet Union, and the end of the Cold War.
Several members of Congress, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch (R-ID) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-NY), made moving tributes to Wałęsa. Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Andy Harris (R-MD) also made remarks, along with former HFAC Chair Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL).
“The victory of Solidarity was a monumental achievement that brought communism to an end in Poland and the rest of Central Europe and changed the course of world history,” said NED president Carl Gershman. Gershman recalled Wałęsa’s iconic jump in 1980 over the shipyard yard wall in Gdansk to create the first free trade union—the first independent institution of any kind in the communist world. (Missed our reception honoring Lech Wałęsa? Watch it here.)
Although forced underground during the 1980s, Solidarity endured to hold roundtable talks with the government that led to Poland’s semi-free elections in 1989. On November 15, 1989, Wałęsa became the second private foreign citizen ever to address a joint session of the United States Congress. Rep. Engel remembered the speech from his first year in office: “[Wałęsa] described his years-long struggle for freedom, and asked for support from the United States.” Inspired by Wałęsa’s message of democratic solidarity, the Congress responded with a five-minute standing ovation and subsequently provided substantial backing for the new democracies of the region. (See Wałęsa’s historic 1989 speech to the U.S. Congress.)
“Someone—some country—had to break free first, and that was the most dangerous time for that first country. We look back and the fall of communism looks inevitable—trust me, at the time, it was seen as impossible,” said NED board member Amb. Daniel Fried, who played a key role in designing and implementing American policy in Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union and served as U.S. ambassador to Poland from 1997 to 2000.
“After communism fell, then the hard part began,” lamented Fried on the difficult political transition. “Lech Wałęsa said that communism was like turning an aquarium into fish soup. It’s easy, anybody can do it. But democracy, that’s like turning the fish soup back into an aquarium. A little more skill is required, and that’s where Leszek Balcerowicz comes in.” Wałęsa was joined on his trip to Washington by economist Leszek Balcerowicz, the author of Poland’s economic “shock therapy” transition from a state-controlled economy to a democratic, free-market system. Balcerowicz served as governor of the Central Bank of Poland, deputy prime minister, and finance minister during the first post-communist Polish government.
Fried, along with Gershman, presented Wałęsa with a framed print depicting the “Goddess of Democracy,” the statue erected by Chinese students in Tiananmen Square during the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989. That statue and the Chinese democratic movement were brutally crushed on June 4, 1989, the same day as Poland’s landmark elections.
In his remarks, Wałęsa reflected on the positive changes brought by the democratic transition as well as the challenges that face the world’s democracies today. “During the lifespan of our generation, we have eliminated so many bad, deep divisions,” said former president Wałęsa. “I’m afraid that we have really reached a cul-de-sac and we cannot progress any further unless we find answers to major questions: the first being, what should serve as the foundation of this new structure we want to establish in the world? […] The old concept of democracy is unsuitable for today’s world, which we can see more and more clearly.”
Wałęsa called upon the United States once more to be a leader in this new era. “For my great appeal to the United States, please take on the leadership to the world and wherever you are trying hard to do it, you can count on me … if we really thoroughly look at things and put our solutions together, I’m sure that we will have a better world.”
Sen. Jim Risch echoed Wałęsa’s plea in his remarks, “As we celebrate this anniversary, we must not forget that democracy is never finished; you don’t just attain it and then claim victory,” he said. “It is a work ongoing, a constant adjustment in changing times. Neither Poland nor the U.S. can claim to be finished.”
The following day, both Wałęsa and Balcerowicz spoke in the NED offices at a half-day conference on democracy in Central Europe after thirty years. The standing-room-only audience first heard from Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy Human Rights and Labor Robert Destro, as well as AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, and Center for International Private Enterprise chairman Greg Lebedev, who introduced Wałęsa and Balcerowicz respectively.
The keynote addresses were followed by a panel discussion on defending democracy in Poland and Central Europe moderated by Amb. Fried and featuring author and historian Anne Applebaum; former Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, Victoria Nuland; Simon Panek the Executive Director of Czech Republic’s humanitarian organization People in Need; and George Weigel, biographer of Pope John Paul II. (Watch the entire conversation about defending democracy in Central and Eastern Europe.)
Despite the wealth of knowledge shared over two days, AFL-CIO president Richard TrumkaDuring Lech Wałęsa’s address to the joint Congress, three words got the biggest response—‘we the people.’ Not ‘we the politician,’ not ‘we the corporation,’ and not ‘we the executive,’ but ‘we the people.’” Trumka urged everyone to let this message guide us forward: “Lech Wałęsa reminds us that change can come from unexpected places and working people are always ready to answer the call of leadership. Let’s answer that call again today.”