210. Twenty Years After Solidarity: The State of Democracy in the Post- Communist World

By
Bronislaw Geremek

In his opening remarks, Zbigniew Brzezinski outlined three categories of democracy: functioning, malfunctioning, and fictitious. Functioning democracies are characterized by political and economic pluralism. Poland represents one of the most successful "functioning democracies" in the post-communist world. Malfunctioning democracies, such as many former Soviet states today, may aspire to democracy, but are crippled by legacies of the communist past. In fictitious democracies, the organs of the Communist Party remain but the regime pursues limited, reformist economic and social policies, such as in China. Brzezinski also pointed out that wide-scale, growing poverty impedes the movement toward democracy in many post-communist countries.

Former Foreign Minister Geremek and Czech Ambassador Vondra both reflected on the importance of Solidarity in the region's history. Geremek credited the Catholic church for its role in preparing the Polish citizens for the nation-wide resistance movement and identified the visit of Pope John Paul II, in particular, as a crucial moment in developing feelings of independence and national solidarity. He attributed the success of Solidarity primarily to the workers, who had been pivotal in fighting oppression throughout Polish history and, as the backbone of the communist system, were able to avert criticism from authorities. Geremek asserted that part of the success of Solidarity was that it gradually added political demands to economic ones, such as demanding that the Communist Party limit rather than abolish censorship to avoid provoking Soviet intervention.

"Solidarity brought to Poland the experience of democracy," the former Foreign Minister said. Geremek brought his own experience with democracy and reform to Poland in 1980, after spending the previous year as a scholar at the Wilson Center. Geremek also acknowledged the role played by external factors in defeating communism, such as large Western credits and the Helsinki Commission's emphasis on human rights. To ensure the success of reform and democratization elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, Geremek expressed a need for the continuity of Western credits to the region and urged that the enlargement of NATO and the EU be made an international priority.

Ambassador Vondra identified Solidarity as a genuine catalyst for reform and Poland as a model of dissent for Czech youth unable to travel to the West. Solidarity's rise sparked the dissemination of hundreds of thousands of copies of samizdat (underground publications), while Western support further aided dissenters in attracting maximum attention. According to Ambassador Vondra, the Czech Republic continues to benefit from the Solidarity model, upon which the current, close Czech-Polish cooperation on economic and human rights issues is based. The same principle of reform and democracy which Solidarity sparked in Eastern Europe also played a primary role in the cooperation leading to NATO membership for Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland.

Former Congressman Solarz was struck by Solidarity's ability to "balance aspirations for freedom against communist repression and domination," by relying on incremental progress to achieve its goals. He closed the session with the statement that the movement can still serve as a model to help advance democracy worldwide.

Mr. Geremek spoke at a Wilson Center Director's Forum on September 25, 2000. The above is a summary of the event

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant