Many recognize the iconic 1980 image of Lech Wałęsa signing – with a giant pen – the so-called August Agreements that symbolized the rise of the Solidarity movement in Poland and ultimately paved the way to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. However, few remember what these agreements, which represented major concessions of the then-communist government of Poland to its citizens, actually contained.
The postulates that the government agreed to fulfill upheld freedom of association and the right of independent trade unions to exist and represent workers. They also demanded respect for the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech and expression. But equally important is the extent to which Solidarity’s struggle for greater democratic freedoms was intertwined with the popular yearning for better living standards. In fact, 16 out of 21 postulates of the August Agreements were economic in nature, including the demand for meaningful reforms of the country’s failing economy.
The focus on economy is easy to understand given Poland’s desperate condition in 1980 that led to the Solidarity strikes which in turn brought the government to the negotiating table. Although the government reversed its course and turned to harsh repression of Solidarity in the following years, the movement ultimately triumphed in 1989 and ushered in the era of democratic and market-oriented reforms.
The question of whether the latter were successful in reaching all segments of the society is still a source of heated debates, as illustrated by the disputes among various groups claiming Solidarity’s legacy that clearly came to the fore during the recent commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the August Agreements. Undeniably, however, big changes did take place and an average Pole today lives in a very different world than he or she did back in 1980.
Gone are long lines, gasoline and sugar rationing cards, and empty store shelves. Central planning of the economy is all but a distant memory and the private sector accounts for more than two-thirds of the GDP. Comparing 1980 with 2009 data (Polish), real monthly salaries increased six-fold, residential energy consumption almost tripled and so did the number of restaurants, and the number of cars went from 2.4 million to 16.5 million. These figures testify to much greater availability and affordability of consumer goods and to rising general standard of living.
Does that mean that the task of economic reforms is over or that everybody benefited equally? Certainly not – many reforms remain insufficient or unfinished and many Poles struggle with unemployment and material hardships. Yet today, precisely because democratic and market-oriented reforms have taken root, not only has the standard of living visibly improved, but citizens are secure in their freedoms and can have an open policy dialogue with their government without fear of repression. To me that’s the greatest legacy of Solidarity.