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The 1989 Round Table Talks

by Peter K. Gessner

On February 6, 1989, an event occurred in Warsaw that marked the beginning of the end of the Soviet Communist Empire. On that date, members of Poland's Communist regime sat down with representatives of the hitherto illegal Solidarity labor union to negotiate changes in the system of government. The outcome, of what proved to be an eight-week long negotiating session, was destined to change the course of history.

Ever since the end of the Second World War, the Soviet imposed regimes in Eastern Europe had stood fast, if need be by bloody repression. Led by Solidarity, the Polish people had - by years of non-violent resistance, strikes, and non-cooperation - rendered the country virtually ungovernable. Reluctantly, the Polish regime offered to recognize Solidarity and to negotiate changes calculated to insure the labor union's cooperation.

As the two sides, one led by the regime's prime minister, Mieczyslaw Rakowski, the other by Nobel Laureate Lech Walesa, negotiated in Warsaw's Namiestnikowski Palace - sitting around round table measuring 25 feet across - the nation tuned in on radio and television. The Communist regime termed Poland a "people's democracy," but all the deputies to the Sejm, Poland's parliament, were elected from lists prepared by the Communists. Solidarity insisted that democracy had to be more than just a word. Democracy meant an end to the party's monopoly on power.

Solidarity argued that at least a portion of the 460 seats in the Sejm should be freely contestable and demanded a free press and equal access to the government controlled television stations in the coming elections. It also argued for the creation of an upper house, or Senate, of limited powers but with all its 100 seats fully contestable.

At the time the Talks begun, Poles joked that the reason for the table's huge diameter was that it exceeded the world's spitting distance record by three feet. Yet, in spite of the deep animosity between the two sides, by the time the Talks ended on April 5, 1989, the regime agreed that 35% of the seats in the Sejm and all of those in the Senate would be filled by free election. In turn, it secured Solidarity's agreement to creation of a novel post, that of President, to be elected by a vote of the two houses of Parliament in joint session.

The regime thought it had successfully coopted Solidarity. Unable to ever gain more than a third of the seats in the Sejm, it would have to serve as a loyal opposition. The Communists had underestimated, however, the fervor of the anticommunist feelings of the Polish people. In the June 4, 1999, elections that followed, the regime suffered an embarrassingly crushing defeat. The Communist candidates failed to win any of the freely contested seats in either the Sejm or the Senate which were all won, with but a single exception, by Solidarity.

The rout became all the more complete when it transpired that many of the regime's candidates, who stood for the seats specifically reserved for the Communists, failed to muster the minimum number of votes deemed necessary for election. As the Communists tried to form a government, they found that its two satellite parties in the Sejm, who in all these years had been subservient to the regime, now supported Solidarity. And so, Solidarity, able to count on the majority of the votes in both Sejm and Senate, formed a government.

In the months that followed, the chains of Communism peacefully slid to the ground, Lech Walesa was elected President, and Poland resumed its rightful place among the free and truly sovereign nations of the world. The Poles had accomplished, a bloodless transition from a totalitarian to a democratic form of government. Within the next year, inspired by the Polish examples, all but one of the former Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe negotiated similar bloodless transfers of power.

During February through April, 1999, thousands of Poles in Warsaw celebrated the tenth anniversary of the Round Table Talks by eagerly lining up at the Namiestnikowski Palace, now the residence of Poland's President, to view the newly reassembled symbol, the round table, where ten years ago jailers and their former captives, apparetchniks, dissidents, and Church leaders sat hammering out the agreements that contributed so much to the ending of the Cold War and a new era in world history. How much things have since 1989 was underscored by the fact that on March 12, 1999, Poland, the former Warsaw Pact member, complete its formal process of joining NATO, with a ceremony that took place in Independence, Missouri.

Annotated Resources:

1. A brief but balanced introduction to the topic is provided by Adam Zamoyski on pp 396-397 of the 1994 edition of his book, The Polish Way by Adam Zamoyski (Hippocrene Books, New York)

2. A research paper:The Round Table Negotiations in Poland by Wiktor Osiatynski (Working Paper Number 1, Center for Study of Constitutionalism in Eastern Europe, School of Law, University of Chicago. August 1981)

Annotated links:

1. In a speech given on March 11, 1996 at Kansas State University, General Wojciech Jaruzelski claimed that he had been the initiator of the talks. As First Secretary of the Presidium of the Polish United Workers Party (the name adopted by Poland's Communist Party), Gen. Jaruzelski was the de facto head of Poland Communist regime.



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