GDAŃSK, Poland — Lech Wałęsa sits at his desk, peering at his computer screen and poking at the keyboard, before getting up heavily to settle in a worn armchair, his stomach straining at his shirt. The signature walrus mustache that makes him the world’s most recognizable Pole is trimmed a bit closer and completely white.
Lech Wałęsa is an old man now. But the 73-year-old still has fight left in him.
“I’m on my way to eternity, but as long as I have strength I don’t want to allow the destruction of Poland,” he says, sitting in his office in the European Solidarity Centre, a museum dedicated to the history of Solidarity, built steps away from the old gates of the Lenin Shipyard where Wałęsa once worked as an electrician.
Wałęsa has won the Nobel peace prize and served as Poland’s president. The Solidarity labor union he led helped end Central European communism. But he still has one more political goal: to bring down Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party and end the dominance of its leader Jarosław Kaczyński. “Kaczyński is breaking principles and the constitution and the laws and principles of the separation of powers,” says Wałęsa. “He’s dangerous and irresponsible. It’s going to turn out badly.”
The question is if Wałęsa can leverage the affection in which most Poles hold him into a political force. He hasn’t been relevant in politics since losing the presidency in 1995; an attempted comeback in 2000 garnered him just 1 percent of the vote.
Since then, he’s been giving paid speeches and riding on his past glory. He’s also a frequent commentator on current politics and a keen blogger, although some of his observations bear the hallmarks of someone who’s spent a lot of time on the internet. During one interview a few years ago, he swerved into talking about anti-gravity devices. This time, he veers into the weeds once again, wondering aloud if there are too many people in Poland, and how nice the country’s landscape would be if there were a lot more forests and wild boars and a lot fewer towns and cities.
“My husband exchanged me for a computer,” was how his wife Danuta put it in an interview after the publication of her 2011 bestseller recounting their marriage difficulties.
With not much to keep him at home, Wałęsa has long bridled at being shunted aside by younger generations of politicians. And today, the old warhorse is sniffing at the possibility of a return to relevance.
Instead of sitting in quiet retirement, he’s taken to the road in an attempt to create a national movement for a referendum calling for new elections and taken to lobbying the European officials who make it a point to swing by his office, urging them to take a harder line with his country’s government.
Poland is already in trouble with the European Commission, which instituted an unprecedented rule of law procedure against Warsaw after it hamstrung the country’s top constitutional court. But Wałęsa is not satisfied with what he sees as mostly empty words. He wants action. Specifically, he wants Brussels to threaten to revoke Poland’s membership in the bloc if the Law and Justice party continues to break democratic rules.
“I don’t like speaking against Poland, but I have no choice,” he says. “It has to be that if you belong to a club but don’t fit then they throw you out. Losing the right to vote [in the EU] is too little. They have to throw us out.”
Warsaw has ignored the Commission demands, says it has “ended cooperation” with the Council of Europe, the Continent’s human rights watchdog, and pays no heed to regular condemnations in the European Parliament.
Wałęsa and Jarosław Kaczyński, 67, have known each other for decades, and they share a mutual animosity — hate is not too strong a term.
In a recent interview with the foreign press, Kaczyński told reporters “not to treat Wałęsa seriously,” saying the former Solidarity leader has “great intellectual deficits, character defects and a terrible past.” Wałęsa, he added, had “discredited himself.”
Jarosław’s twin brother Lech, a former Polish president killed in a 2010 plane crash, was a leading anti-communist activist and was one of the advisers to Wałęsa and other union leaders during the 1980 strike at the Gdańsk shipyard that led to the creation of Solidarity.
After Poland’s communist government declared martial law in 1981, Wałęsa and Lech Kaczyński spent time in prison. As Jarosław was only a minor player in the opposition, the authorities didn’t bother interning him.
In the roundtable talks between Solidarity and the government in 1989 leading to the end of communist rule, the Kaczyńskis served as advisers to Wałęsa, only to fall out with their patron not long after his successful 1990 presidential campaign. Within a couple of years, Jarosław Kaczyński was leading loud anti-Wałęsa protests through central Warsaw. They’ve been bitter enemies ever since.
Kaczyński’s disdain of Wałęsa is both personal and political. He’s upset that Wałęsa is seen as Poland’s liberator from communism, feeling his brother gets short shrift from historians. “The powerful figure really running the union was my brother,” Kaczyński said earlier this year — a claim Wałęsa dismissed as “nonsense,” adding that he fired the twins because they were unreliable and dangerous.
Attacking Wałęsa is a core part of Kaczyński’s political message. He likes to argue that the post-1989 transformation was deeply flawed and that Wałęsa bears the blame for a deal that allowed the communists to exchange political power for being allowed to hang onto their economic gains.
Wałęsa insists that the transformation was a huge success, pointing out that Poland has been one of Europe’s fastest growing economies for decades. “We made maximum use of our victory and the EU to lift up Poland,” says Wałęsa. “Today’s Poland is different. Remember those roads and those horses? Now I sometimes get lost in Gdańsk because so much has changed. “
He does recognize that many people were left behind by a tumultuous quarter-century of economic reforms. “We did one thing wrong, we forgot about the people, we forgot we had to help them,” he says.
It was Kaczyński who managed to target those disaffected people with generous social spending promises — one of the reasons his party won last year’s parliamentary and presidential elections. And now that he controls the country, he wants to reshape the historical narrative and in particular Wałęsa’s role.
The biggest blemish in Wałęsa’s biography comes from 1970, when he was a young worker and labor organizer in the wake of a bloody military crackdown against striking shipyard workers. There is pretty strong evidence that he was cowed by the secret police and signed an agreement to inform for them, obtaining the code name “Bolek.” He was apparently stricken from the rolls of agents in 1976 due to a lack of cooperation.
Wałęsa himself has never admitted to agreeing to cooperate with the secret police, instead calling it an “incident” in his past and saying in interviews that he played “games” with the secret police and tried to trick them. He was cleared of the accusation of being a collaborator by a special court in 2000.
“If I were unimportant, no one would have noticed me,” he says when asked about the accusations. “When they say these sorts of things, it means that I am strong.” At an anti-government demonstration this summer, hundreds of protesters showed up wearing cardboard walrus mustaches to show their support for the old leader.
It’s that base of affection and respect that Wałęsa hopes to tap into as he makes his regular trips around the country to build opposition to the government and to Kaczyński.
“I am a practicing Catholic, and I will be forced to account for my talents. I have to use them the best I can. Otherwise I’ll go to hell.”
Click Here: cheap INTERNATIONAL jersey