Solidarity hero falls from favor

SUN JOURNAL

Walesa: The uneducated electrician who scaled a fence, toppled an empire and won the presidency is an embarrassment to his countrymen.

April 05, 1999|By Lori Montgomery | Lori Montgomery,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

GDANSK, Poland -- Lech Walesa, legendary hero of the anti-Communist Solidarity movement, former president of Poland and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is sitting at his big wooden desk pretending to read a newspaper.

He flips through the pages and rattles them impatiently. He sips his coffee, then rattles the paper again. Head down, eyebrows raised, he barely notices his visitors. Who has time to notice such things? Not Walesa, a busy man on the go.

But on this recent gloomy day, Lech Walesa is going nowhere. It is one of the many ironies of his remarkable life that Walesa, universally recognized as one of the most important figures of the 20th century, feels the need to act important.

Here is another: Ten years after Walesa led Poland to become the first Soviet-bloc country to throw off the shackles of communism, sparking a revolution that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union, he is an object of contempt among his countrymen, a Polish Dan Quayle, the butt of a thousand jokes.

Ask average Poles about Walesa, and they usually roll their eyes. His Polish is terrible, they say; his jokes are crude. He's uneducated. An embarrassment. Last month, a national opinion survey found that Walesa is one of the least popular political figures in Poland, viewed favorably by less than 30 percent of those polled.

"And that's not a particularly bad score for President Walesa," said Michal Wenzel, an analyst at Warsaw's Public Opinion Research Center. "There's a high degree of negativism associated with his name."

It gets worse: The same poll found that the most popular Polish politician by far is Aleksander Kwasniewski, the handsome, smooth-talking yuppie who beat Walesa for the presidency in 1995. Kwasniewski is a communist -- or at least he was until 1989.

Still bitter about his defeat -- and, at 55, not ready to sail over history's horizon -- Walesa founded a political party last year. On good days, he tells interviewers that the Christian Democrats of the Third Republic will carry him back to the presidency in elections next year.

"I'm not longing for it. I played that role already. I didn't like it," Walesa said during an interview in his spare office in the old Gdansk theater building. "But I'm a patriot. If the need exists, then I will serve."

Analysts, however, say the odds of a Walesa comeback are virtually zero. Even in Gdansk, home of the historic Lenin Shipyard -- where in 1980 Walesa scaled the fence and transformed a workers' strike into a national protest movement -- things don't look good.

The shipyard is bankrupt, a casualty of a badly managed transition to a market economy. A consortium bought the yard in December and is talking about tearing down the cranes to build an office park. The dwindling number of employees are worried about their jobs.

Here, criticism of Walesa has grown so cruel that Aleksandra Olszewska hides a yard-long oak switch under the counter of her kiosk outside the shipyard gates.

"People complain that he didn't defend the shipyards. But I saw him going up over that gate. He was the only one in 10,000 people to do it, even though he has a wife and eight kids.

"Now, everyone's complaining. But I defend him," said Olszewska, a widow in her 60s who sells Solidarity key chains and T-shirts and plastic framed photos of a young Walesa. "If somebody gets too harsh on him, I pull out my stick."

In February, for the first time in three years, Walesa visited the shipyard. In a wistful replay of his glory days, he offered his leadership: Help me win back the presidency, he reportedly said at a meeting of about 200 workers, and I can help you save the yard.

"They said no. He was lucky they didn't throw eggs at him," said Stanislaw Kwiatkowski, 77, a shipyard worker for more than four decades. "They feel his capitalist system made the shipyard bankrupt. So it's damnation for him."

Whatever else one might say about Walesa, no one can accuse him of a surplus of good luck. History called, and overnight an electrician who never went beyond trade school had to lead a nation.

Vaclav Havel, Walesa's historical counterpart in the neighboring Czech Republic, was an intellectual and a playwright who handled the transition from dissident to president with grace. But though Walesa had a genius for underground politics, he never had an easy way with power.

As president, he declared war on his intellectual Solidarity comrades, alienating many of his oldest friends. When NATO began to talk about admitting Poland, Walesa proposed a "NATO bis" or "second NATO" in Eastern Europe to avoid making Moscow angry.

Then he revealed that in his youth he signed a "lojalek," a promise to cooperate with the secret police. Many began to speculate that he'd had even closer ties to the disgraced communist regime.

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