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Jaruzelski: General to Jailer to Poland's Savior

August 27, 1989|Tad Szulc | Tad Szulc is a veteran foreign correspondent based in Washington

WASHINGTON — During this same decade, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski was described as a "Soviet general in a Polish uniform" by then-U.S. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger. Weinberger was blaming Jaruzelski for leading Poland's armed forces to the destruction of the Solidarity free trade union movement in December, 1981.

Now, the same Jaruzelski--elected Poland's president last month--is under attack from hard-line Communists at home. They blame him for "betraying" the party and turning the country into the nearest thing to a Western social democracy by naming a Solidarity leader--the same Solidarity--as prime minister in a coalition Cabinet where Communists are a minority. Last Thursday, Communist deputies responded to pressure from Jaruzelski and from Mikhail S. Gorbachev in Moscow by joining the opposition in Parliament to approve Solidarity's Tadeusz Mazowiecki as prime minister by a landslide 378 to 4 votes.

The extraordinary change in perception of a 63-year-old career army officer (and career Communist Party official) underscores the rapidity of political evolution in Poland; even more, it illuminates Jaruzelski's own sense of reality and sense of patriotism.

His personality traits, ranging from stubbornness to principle, are most relevant when Poland confronts its greatest postwar crisis and when Jaruzelski may play the decisive role to avert disaster. No less pivotal and paradoxical, Jaruzelski's principal ally in peacemaking is Solidarity's chief, Lech Walesa.

Jaruzelski never forgot Weinberger's remark because it questioned his patriotism. When I first met the general in 1982, six months after he had imposed martial law, he went to great lengths explaining that he acted not because the Kremlin ordered him to, but because he had become convinced that Poland was on the verge of civil war.

Jaruzelski knew that he was despised by most of his fellow citizens. He was resigned to personal unpopularity and determined to pursue a gradual policy of reform without risking an explosion. Solidarity's legalization earlier this year, its overwhelming victory in June's parliamentary elections--and the idea that Communists would have to share power in the new government--were the result of the general's patient and courageous long-range plan: to create a different Poland while maintaining friendly relations with the Soviet Union next door.

Walesa early realized what many Polish observers are only beginning to discover: that Jaruzelski was not personally opposed to basic change and that, incredible as it may have seemed only a few years ago, the general was potentially Solidarity's best ally.

Though Walesa was detained under martial law along with thousands of Solidarity activists, he never developed nor demonstrated personal resentment against Jaruzelski. He even sent him a courtesy note from the villa where he was under house arrest, signing it "Corporal Walesa," a joking reference to his former military service. In conversations with Jaruzelski about the opposition, I never heard him make derogatory comments about Walesa. And when they met early this year for the first time, the general and the rebel leader found that they could work together to further reform and prevent economic collapse.

By 1987--after Pope John Paul II visited his native Poland and met with Walesa--Jaruzelski decided that the time was nearing for a deal with what he called "moderate opposition." Gorbachev's ascent to power made it easier; both men were committed to reform their respective systems. Jaruzelski told me two years ago that he and Gorbachev developed a personal friendship, comparing notes on struggles against hard-line opponents.

By 1988, Jaruzelski was frankly seen as a foe by Polish Communist hard-liners, especially when he agreed to "round table" meetings with opposition leaders--although still without Walesa. The general had concluded that without political liberalization and opposition participation, there could be no real economic reform.

At a dramatic closed meeting of the Communist Party Central Committee last October, Jaruzelski threatened to resign as first secretary if the round table was blocked. His close friend Mieczyslaw Rakowski threatened to resign as prime minister, Gen. Czeslaw Kiszczak as interior minister and Gen. Florian Siwicki as defense minister. Now demeaned as "liberals" by hard-liners, Jaruzelski and his allies won this first battle against the party apparatus.

Under the round-table agreement, the Communist Party retained the post of the head of state--with increased executive powers--and was guaranteed 65% of the seats in Parliament's lower house. Solidarity was legalized. All Senate seats were open to a free election. Solidarity won its full quota of lower house seats and 99 out of 100 Senate seats. Jointly, the two houses were to elect the new president. Jaruzelski was the logical candidate.

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