WARSAW, February 5 – Twenty years after Poland’s ruling communist party and the Solidarity freedom movement sat down for watershed talks, participants in the historic negotiations are recalling how they sped the collapse of the entire Soviet bloc.
February 6, 1989 marked the launch of the so-called Round Table negotiations, which came after years of struggle between the regime and Solidarity, born in a strike-wave in 1980 and forced underground by a military crackdown a year later.
The negotiations paved the way to semi-democratic elections in June 1989, a vote which saw Solidarity, led by the iconic Lech Walesa, break the power monopoly of the communist regime by entering parliament.
"Was there any real alternative to this great bloodless victory?" Walesa, 65, asked rhetorically in an interview this week.
"Without the Round Table, communism could have stuck around for another fifty years and a day," he said.
Two decades later, negotiators still marvel at the pace of change sparked by the talks.
"No one on either side thought events would move so quickly and that six months later my government would see the light of day," Tadeusz Mazowiecki, 81, a Solidarity intellectual who became post-war Poland’s first non-communist prime minister in 1989, told AFP.
"All we hoped for from those negotiations at the most was the legalisation of Solidarity, seven years after it was banned by the communists, and that Lech Walesa not be treated as just a private person," Mazowiecki said.
The communist regime had refused to recognise Walesa as leader of the Solidarity union, banned in 1981.
The communist regime was also amazed, recalled Leszek Miller, at the time a communist negotiator.
"I thought it would be a step towards democracy and that Solidarity would take on the role of the opposition, certainly not the role of government straight away," said Miller, 62, who himself became premier when the ex-communist Social Democrats won office in 2001.
"Solidarity got much, much more than it had demanded," he claimed.
After two months of talks, the Round Table yielded a complex electoral accord allowing Solidarity to run for 161 of the 460 seats in Poland’s lower house and all 100 in the Senate.
In the June 4 election, Solidarity won every seat it was allotted by huge margins, while the communist side was forced into embarrassing run-offs.
"Even hard line communists voted for Solidarity candidates — the will for change was widespread," said Jerzy Urban, once the communist regime’s media spin doctor who thwarted press freedom, now the publisher of "Nie" (No), a biting satirical weekly.
Incapable of forming a government, the communists ceded the initiative to Mazowiecki, insisting he include a few party members as ministers.
"We could have easily falsified the election results, but we recognised them," Urban told AFP.
Communism still held sway elsewhere — the Berlin Wall did not fall until November 1989, and the Soviet Union only collapsed in 1991.
"Nothing was set in stone. Hard-line communists were still very strong. (Romania’s communist dictator Nicolae) Ceausescu had proposed military intervention to help the communists recapture power in Poland and there was the Yanayev putsch against (Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev in 1991," said Mazowiecki.
Mazowiecki also had to retain regime leader General Wojciech Jaruzelski as head of state, before he stepped aside and Walesa was elected president, serving from 1990 to 1995.
Although the communist regime effectively gave up power after the Round Table, the deal paved the way for communists revamped as Social Democrats to win parliamentary elections in Poland in 1993.
Communist negotiator Aleksander Kwasniewski went on to become a two-term president, winning elections in 1995 and 2005.
During his tenure Poland cemented its place among western democracies, joining NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004.
After Poland’s regime fell, Mazowiecki faced criticism for drawing what he called a "thick line" under the past, a strategy he claimed was necessary to coax the communists out of power.
Twenty years after the Round Table accords, however, Jaruzelski, 85, and members of his entourage are now on trial over their regime’s record.