Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who died yesterday at the age of 86, was only prime minister of Poland for less than a year and a half, but his importance was vastly greater than that might suggest. Mazowiecki was the first non-communist head of government anywhere in eastern Europe for more than 40 years, and his appointment in August 1989 heralded the collapse of the Soviet empire.
You can read various obituaries for Mazowiecki today. Here’s Reuters, for example; here’s the BBC; here’s the Washington Post. As usual, the best is the New York Times. But even it doesn’t fully tell the story of how Mazowiecki came to office, and it’s worth telling.
In early 1989, beset by economic crisis and no longer sure of the support of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union, the Polish Communist government agreed to formal talks with the opposition movement, Solidarity. From those talks emerged an agreement to hold the first partially democratic elections in the Soviet bloc: 35% of the seats in the lower house of parliament, plus all the seats in the Senate, would be freely contested.
The idea was that the Communists and their allies, with a guaranteed 65% of the seats, would continue to govern, but there would be scope for input from a democratic opposition, which would therefore share some of the responsibility for the measures needed to deal with the economy.
When the elections were held in June, Solidarity won every one of the open lower house seats and 99 of the 100 Senate seats. Many Communist candidates had difficulty getting elected, even though they were unopposed, because majorities of voters crossed their names off the ballot papers.
As a result, the allies of the Communists – two small parties that had hitherto been tolerated as puppets – realised which way the wind was blowing and started to behave like independent actors. The Communists found they could not control the lower house, and in mid-August their nominee for prime minister, General Kiszczak, failed to win a vote of confidence.
Given the extent of the social and economic crisis, and the lack of any precedents for a transition from totalitarian rule, Solidarity was understandably wary about taking power, but an opportunity like this could not be passed up.
Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa held himself in reserve (he was to become president the following year) and submitted to President Jaruzelski the names of three Solidarity members who would be willing to serve as prime minister. Mazowiecki was the one who got the nod.
The Communists retained the presidency and some key ministries, but they had no appetite for a fight and there were no Soviet tanks to back them up. In short order, Mazowiecki presided over the dismantling of the command economy and the full introduction of democracy. By the end of 1989, the other Soviet satellites had broken free as well, the Berlin Wall had come down and the post-war division of Europe was over.
In all, it was a gripping political drama. The desertion of the Communists by their allies was a reminder that, in the right circumstances, stooges can think for themselves – a lesson that each generation has to learn for itself.
And the whole process showed, in case anyone doubted, that Communist power had always depended on Soviet support. When that was withdrawn, the dominoes collapsed with shocking speed.