Negotiating the Transition in Poland

05/01/2015 10:51 am ET | Updated May 01, 2016

The great transformations of 1989 began with the announcement early in the year that the Polish government would begin Round Table negotiations with the Solidarity trade union movement. It was an unprecedented move. There had been uprisings from below and crackdowns from above. There had been revolutions from within and interventions from outside. But for the first time in the Soviet bloc, a Communist Party and an opposition movement were sitting down together to negotiate their way out of an impasse.

Janusz Reykowski was a key figure in the reform wing of Poland's Communist Party. A psychologist, he was an early proponent of promoting reconciliation between the Party and Solidarity. In 1989, he had an opportunity to put his views into action as the government's lead negotiator on political issues in the Round Table. In 1990, I interviewed him about the work that led him to that position (the transcript is below). When I returned to Poland in 2013, I interviewed him again about what had happened in the intervening years.

He began by recalling a point in the Round Table negotiations when it looked as though the entire process would unravel. It was near the end, when both sides were preparing for the final plenary and the announcement of the agreement. But the government-aligned trade union OPZZ decided abruptly to oppose the final compromise. Then the agreement on the order of speakers for the final announcement broke down. Even as the journalists gathered to hear these speeches, and the entire country was watching on television, the two sides couldn't come to an agreement. The government was threatening to blame the deadlock on Solidarity and walk away from the agreement. At this point, out of frustration and anger, Reykowski began to plan his resignation.

But then the negotiators tried one last time. Vice-premier Ireneusz Sekula said, "I want to tell a joke."

"I thought he was crazy," Reykowski remembers. "You can imagine the situation! He's going to tell a joke? This was the joke. Goethe was once walking on a narrow path in the mountains. All of the sudden, he met his mortal enemy on the road. His enemy said, 'I never give way to fools.' And Goethe said, 'But I always give way to fools.' And he turned around and left." When Sekula told this joke, there was silence. Then someone said, "Maybe this is good advice for you, Solidarity members."

According to Reykowski, his Solidarity counterpart historian Bronislaw Geremek picked up on the suggestion. Reykowski remembers him saying, "We will make an announcement opposing what OPZZ did. But in the interest of this agreement and in the interest of Poland, we agree not to force our demands."

It only took a few minutes to formulate this announcement, and the crisis ended.
"It could have easily gone the other way," Reykowski told me. "The whole thing lasted two or three hours, and people were even thinking that there might be Martial Law again. But a number of people acted so that we could find another solution."

As part of the agreement, Poland held semi-free elections on June 4, 1989 in which 100 percent of the Senate seats and one third of the Sejm seats were up for competitive election. The Solidarity-affiliated candidates won all but one of the available seats.

"I was thinking that it was quite likely that Solidarity might have a big success," Reykowski told me. "Also, I heard about the Party's good relations with bishops. What really happened, if you remember, is that the Church built a big infrastructure for Solidarity all over Poland. Solidarity didn't in fact have such a strong political infrastructure outside the big cities, but it was compensated by the network of parishes that was quite effective."

He admits that, given his political affiliation, he should have been disappointed by the results. "But from the historical perspective, the electoral outcome was the best solution," he concluded.

The election was a turning point. But, as Reykowski pointed out, it was really what didn't happen a few days later that made all the difference.

"On June 6 or 7, 1989, after the election in Poland, there was a big wave of demands faxed to the Central Committee demanding that the June 4 election be annulled," he remembered. "There was a big pressure. I had a feeling that we were in a very dangerous situation. In the next few days, it developed in such a way that the election was finally approved -- and that was the point of no return. I am bringing this up because this was a moment when there might have been a basic political change and nothing happened. The critical point was the election on June 4, 1989, and in the following days this election was recognized and there were no major forces to challenge it. It was also the signal for all others in the region. It was a signal that the Soviet Union didn't do anything and that nothing inside the country happened either."

We talked about the subsequent political and economic reforms, the decline of the post-Communist party and the rise of Krytyka Polityczna, his role in creating a new university with 13,000 students, and the future of liberalism in Poland.

The Interview

What for you was the most decisive event for Poland but also for the region as a whole?

I will be anecdotal, if that's okay with you. On June 6 or 7, 1989, after the election in Poland, there was a big wave of demands faxed to the Central Committee demanding that the June 4 election be annulled. There was a big pressure. I had a feeling that we were in a very dangerous situation. In the next few days, it developed in such a way that the election was finally approved -- and that was the point of no return.

I am bringing this up because this was a moment when there might have been a basic political change and nothing happened. The critical point was the election on June 4, 1989, and in the following days this election was recognized and there were no major forces to challenge it. It was also the signal for all others in the region. It was a signal that the Soviet Union didn't do anything and that nothing inside the country happened either. I would treat this as the important turning point in the process.

Where did the faxes come from?

During the spring, one or twice I asked for a study of opinions of members of the Party. The picture was approximately the following. There were some reform-oriented people in the upper tier. A majority of ordinary members wanted reform. But there was very strong opposition to reform in the middle level of the Party apparatus. The main source of these telefaxes was this level of the Party apparatus from all over the country.

Was there a similar point during the Round Table when you felt that something dangerous might happen as well?

Oh yes. During these negotiations, there were a number of crucial situations, but they were not very critical. But there was a moment that I remember that scared me very much. This was at the very end of the negotiations. Three days before the final plenary of the Round Table, there was supposed to be a symbolic meeting at the end - just as there had been a symbolic meeting at the beginning -- when 54 people would sit around this round table and symbolically announce the acceptance of the agreement.

Three days before this event, the chairman of the OPZZ made an announcement. OPZZ was the big union related to the central apparatus of the Party. Officially it had seven million members, but politically it was very strong. Three days before the final meeting, the chairman Alfred Miodowicz announced that he wouldn't sign this document because it contained an agreement that there would be only 80 percent compensation for inflation -- the indexation issue. Solidarity had already agreed to this number. So, this was a maneuver to show that OPZZ was defending the basic interests of the working class and Solidarity had sold out this interest.

Obviously Solidarity became furious at this. They originally thought that we negotiators from the Party had made a deal with OPZZ. First we had to explain that we had nothing to do with this -- it was the initiative of OPZZ. Then Solidarity said that it didn't agree that Miodowicz would be third speaker at this final meeting -- the first speaker was Czeslaw Kiszczak from the Party, the second was Lech Walesa from Solidarity, and the third was supposed to Miodlowicz. Since OPZZ was undermining the negotiations, Solidarity didn't agree with this.

Finally, it came to the point where everyone was sitting at this table for this final symbolic meeting. There were 200 foreign journalists. There was no other program on TV except for the transmission from this event. First there was the speech by Kisczcak. Then there was the speech by Walesa. The chairman announced a break. I didn't know why he announced the break. It wasn't planned. He just said, "Fifteen minutes break."

Twenty minutes passed. Half an hour. Nothing happened. I was trying to find out what was happening. I learned that Miodowicz wrote a note to Kiszczak that if he wasn't going to be the third speaker, he and his delegation would leave the meeting. In this situation, they decided to take a break to find a solution.

I went to the back rooms where the leadership was sitting and found that they were in negotiations, with Solidarity in one corner and OPZZ in the other corner, discussing what to do. I tried to get involved by talking to all sides. Solidarity said that they wouldn't agree to allow Miodowicz to speak and Miodowicz said he was leaving.

Nobody at the Round Table knew what was going on. The TV programs didn't know what to do, so they started to play music. No one in Poland knew what was happening! After about 90 minutes, I went into the room where there the governmental Party delegation was sitting. There were a few people there. It was quite a dark room. And I noticed that General Kiszczak was speaking over the phone with General Jaruzelski. I listened to what he was saying.

The conversation went something like this. Kiszczak repeated Jaruzelski's words and then said, "Yes, General." I was trying to listen to what he was saying. It was a kind of announcement like this: Due to the stubbornness of Solidarity, we cannot continue the meeting, and we will look for a solution in the near future.

My first feeling when I was listening to this was that it was really a plot and that I was naïve enough to be involved in such a plot to make Solidarity compromised in the eyes of the people. I was also thinking that if they made this announcement, there would be an immediate conflict. When Kiszczak finished this conversation, I said that I wanted to speak to General Jaruzelski. I was thinking that when I would talk to Jaruzelski, he would be very offended and he would attack me. But I came to the conclusion that I didn't care. I would resign the next day. I talked to General Jaruzelski and said that this was a very dangerous moment with tremendous consequences.

Instead of being angry, he expressed helplessness. He said, "We must not get into a conflict with Miodowicz because he has great support in the Central Committee. If we act against him, in a few days, we will likely be kicked out. So I really don't know what to do."

I said, "At least let us change the wording of the announcement."

"Okay," he said, "Try to prepare a new version."

I sat down with some others to prepare a new version of the announcement. When we prepared the announcement, I called Jaruzelski and told him. He accepted it and when I was about to finish it up, Stanislaw Ciosek [another Politburo member] came and said, "Let me speak with the General." So, he did the same thing I did.

Ciosek said, "Let us try to speak one more time to Walesa."

I said, "Okay, go ahead try to speak with him." I knew Walesa didn't want to speak.

But Walesa sent a group to talk. And we sat down again -- 10 of us, five on each side -- and we started to talk. We said, "We should not destroy all of this. You should find another way." But they couldn't agree.

Then Vice-premier Ireneusz Sekula said, "I want to tell a joke."

I thought he was crazy. You can imagine the situation! He's going to tell a joke?

This was the joke. Goethe was once walking on a narrow path in the mountains. All of the sudden, he met his mortal enemy on the road. His enemy said, "I never give way to fools."

And Goethe said, "But I always give way to fools." And he turned around and left.

When Sekula told this joke, there was silence. Then someone said, "Maybe this is good advice for you, Solidarity members." Geremek picked up on this. He said, "We will make an announcement opposing what OPZZ did. But in the interest of this agreement and in the interest of Poland, we agree not to force our demands."

After a few minutes, this announcement was formulated, and the crisis ended.

It could have easily gone the other way. The whole thing lasted two or three hours, and people were even thinking that there might be Martial Law again. But a number of people acted so that we could find another solution.

I was told by everyone that the results of the June 4 elections were a surprise - except for one person who did polling and predicted that Solidarity would win all the seats it was contesting. What did you think would happen in the elections?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.