GDANSK, Poland — European leaders on Thursday hailed Poland's first semi-free vote as an inspiration for movements that brought down regimes across the Soviet bloc, saying on the election's 20th anniversary that it helped pave the way for a reunited Europe.
At events in Gdansk, the birthplace of Solidarity, and Krakow, the historic seat of Polish kings, two men above others were hailed for their historic role in bringing down communism: Lech Walesa, the former Polish electrician, and Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright.
Both men were imprisoned by their countries' communist regimes but went on to topple their one-time jailers and rise to the presidency in their nations.
The leaders of Poland and Germany and high-ranking representatives from nine other countries once behind the Iron Curtain joined Walesa, now 65, and Havel, 72, to honor those who helped topple communism in Poland.
"Today ... leaders of European countries have come to pay tribute to the great ideas of freedom and solidarity and to the heroes _ both the famous and unknown _ who sacrificed their entire lives for freedom and solidarity," Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, himself a pro-democracy dissident, said at a ceremony in the arched courtyard at Krakow's historic Wawel Castle.
The celebrations later moved to Gdansk, where Walesa and Havel were again the focus of events. George H.W. Bush, who was the U.S. president in that historic year of revolutions, congratulated Poles by video for their "irrepressible spirit."
He said that Solidarity and the June 4 elections "set an undeniable precedent to the downfall of the communist regime in your country."
Later, thousands attended an outdoor concert at the shipyard. Performers included the German band Scorpions, which closed its show with a hit ballad from 20 years ago, "Wind of Change." Many in the audience _ some clearly too young to remember communist repression themselves _ sang along to the lyrics celebrating those massive political changes.
A group of Solidarity dissidents, including Walesa, together knocked over 20 large red dominos representing the communist regimes that fell like dominoes after the Polish elections. A beaming Walesa waved to the crowd to cheers and applause and red and white confetti fluttered in the air.
Strikes born of frustration with worsening economic hardship pushed the communist authorities to sit down in 1989 for talks with Walesa's Solidarity.
The negotiations resulted in the communist regime legalizing Solidarity and agreeing to hold elections for all 100 Senate seats to free voting and one-third of the seats in the more important lower house, the Sejm.
The remaining two-thirds of the lower house was reserved for the communists and minor parties allied with the regime.
With Soviet troops still stationed in their country, Poles delivered a sweeping victory to Solidarity and a crippling blow to Poland's communist regime. Solidarity won 99 of the 100 Senate seats and all the 161 seats that were contested in parliament's more important lower house.
Havel, who led the dissident movement in what was then Czechoslovakia, said Solidarity and the June ballot spurred change in his homeland and helped tear down the Iron Curtain dividing Europe.
"This was a very strong impetus, a very strong link in the chain of events which were conducive later on to our liberation and to the end of the bipolar division of the world," said Havel, who is greatly respected in Poland for his commitment to democracy and his literary achievements.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, said the June 4 elections "marked the decisive victory of democracy in Poland and finally in the whole of Eastern Europe."
"We Germans are deeply grateful for your courageous stands, especially the Germans from within the German Democratic Republic," she said.
In the months to follow the ballot in Poland, Soviet-backed communist regimes would lose their grip on power in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Romania.
Across Poland on Thursday, people marked the vote's anniversary and the momentous changes it unleashed with academic conferences, debates, rock concerts and art exhibitions.
But for all the gains of the past two decades, some Poles also complain that much that was good, such as job security, free time and more equal pay, has been lost with the arrival of a Western-style consumer society.
That frustration was visible in Gdansk, where one union leader, Janusz Sniadek complained about the pro-market policies of Poland today, saying the changes have not always helped the workers who fought for the changes.
Sniadek also said that the bloodless transition to democracy left too many communist-era crimes unpunished.
The shipyard's gate was adorned with the nation's red and white flag, flowers and a framed photograph of Pope John Paul II, the late Polish pontiff whose rise to the papacy inspired Poles to resist the regime.
Scislowska reported from Gdansk, Lucas from Krakow.