Magazine Poland

On this Day, in 1989: the Polish Round Table Talks began in Warsaw

On February 6, 1989, the Polish Round Table Talks began in Warsaw between the ruling communist authorities and the banned Solidarity opposition movement, led by Lech Wałęsa, setting the stage for a transition to democracy and, later that year, the unravelling of the communist bloc in Central and Eastern Europe.

In August 1980, after months of strikes and social unrest, the historic Gdańsk Agreement enabled the creation of Solidarity, the Soviet bloc’s first independent trade union, chaired by Lech Wałęsa, whose role in the strike and the negotiations gained him fame on the international stage.

But 18 months later, martial law was imposed in Poland and General Wojciech Jaruzelski began a crack-down on Solidarity, arresting tens of thousands of union activists, including Wałęsa. While the military junta officially banned Solidarity in 1982, the union continued its activities underground, supported by various international institutions, from the Catholic Church to the CIA.

Martial law in Poland was formally lifted in July 1983, though many heightened controls on civil liberties and political life, as well as food rationing, remained in place throughout the mid-to-late 1980s. As a consequence of economic hardship and political repression, an exodus of Poles saw 700,000 emigrate to the West between 1981 and 1989.

But in 1985, the Soviet Politburo elected Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary. The worsening economic situation in the entire Eastern Bloc forced the new Chairman of the Supreme Soviet to carry out a number of reforms, which soon caused a corresponding shift in the policies of Soviet satellites, including the People’s Republic of Poland.

Indeed, despite the Polish authorities’ best effort to crack down on trade unionism, the movement had gained too much momentum and it soon became impossible to hold off change anymore. And by 1988, with economic malaise and runaway inflation depressing Polish living standards and deepening public anger and frustration, the government began serious talks with the opposition.

In September 1988, following a wave of strikes, a secret meeting was held which included Lech Wałęsa and Minister of Internal Affairs Czesław Kiszczak, during which the two parties agreed to hold the so-called Polish Round Table talks in the near future to plan out the course of action to be undertaken in the country. A list was drawn up of members of the main negotiating teams.

The Polish communists, led by General Jaruzelski, hoped to co-opt prominent opposition leaders into the ruling group without making major changes in the political power structure. In reality, the Polish Round Table Talks, which began in February 1989 and lasted until April, radically altered the shape of the Polish government and society and set the stage for a transition to democracy and, later that year, the unravelling of the communist bloc in Central and Eastern Europe.

With Wałęsa leading the non-governmental side of the negotiations, the meetings resulted in legalization of the Solidarity movement. The Polish Round Table Talks also enabled partially free elections in June 1989, during which Solidarity persuaded the Communists’ two satellite parties to switch their support to Solidarity, all but forcing General Jaruzelski to appoint a Solidarity member as Prime Minister.

Lech Wałęsa picked the former editor-in-chief of the Tygodnik Solidarność magazine, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, to lead the coming administration, thus becoming the first non-communist prime minister in Central and Eastern Europe in over 40 years. Wałęsa then decided to run for the newly re-established office of president and became Poland’s first freely elected head of state since the May Coup of 1926, and the first President of Poland ever elected in a popular vote.

“The Berlin Wall fell because Poland started off the process,” claimed Andrzej Duda, the country’s current president, about the Polish Round Table Talks. But to this day, the meaning and value of the negotiations is hotly disputed among Poles, with many complaining that the accords failed to punish the communists for their crimes…

Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.