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Lech Walesa Is Fearful Where Democracy Is Headed In Poland


Political scientists like to argue about how much any one individual can really change the arc of history. And, yes, tectonic shifts in geopolitics are the result of all kinds of factors, the actions of all kinds of leaders. But when you look at the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, one stands out - the moustachioed Polish electrician who helped bring democracy to Poland.

Lech Walesa received a Nobel Prize for doing so. Now, Poland is going through another political reckoning. And Walesa is looking to start another revolution. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson traveled to northern Poland to talk with him.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Lech Walesa's sprawling office here in the Polish city of Gdansk looks out onto the shipyard where his Solidarity resistance movement began.

LECH WALESA: (Speaking Polish).

NELSON: The 73-year-old loves to reminisce about those days and how he crushed Polish Communism. That was three decades ago. And Walesa's trademark dark mustache is now as white as the iPad he uses to snap selfies and read up on current affairs. I ask him what he thinks about Donald Trump and Walesa smiles. He recalls how Trump invited him to dinner several years ago in Miami.

WALESA: (Speaking Polish).

NELSON: The former Polish president quips, "I would have given Mr. Trump more advice back then if I had known he would be elected." Walesa's smile fades when I ask him about how Poland is doing.

WALESA: (Speaking Polish).

NELSON: "The old democracy is over," he says, adding that Poland these days is full of populism, demagoguery and fraud.

WALESA: (Speaking Polish).

NELSON: Walesa is hardly alone in being alarmed by the direction his country is taking under right-wing populists. Polish liberals, democracy watchdogs and EU officials accuse the ruling Law and Justice Party of endangering Polish democracy with its attacks on the judiciary, the media and civil rights. For Walesa, Poland's drift toward authoritarianism isn't the only issue. He also has a beef with the ruling party's leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

WALESA: (Speaking Polish).

NELSON: Walesa dismisses Kaczynski as, quote, "irrelevant in the past and irrelevant in the future with the kind of ideas he has." He disagrees with the Law and Justice Party leader's dogged pursuit of former Communists, who he wants to remove from every corner of government. Walesa says Poland needs to look forward, not back. But Kaczynski is also dismissive of Walesa. Late last year, he told reporters the former Solidarity leader had a, quote, "great intellectual deficit and character flaws."

WALESA: (Speaking Polish).

NELSON: Walesa feels he has no choice but to come out of political retirement. He's pushing for Poles to petition for a referendum calling for new elections. But it's unclear whether the former Polish president can translate his ideas into action. Walesa has been absent from the political scene since 2000, when he received less than 2 percent of the vote during a presidential race. Repeated allegations over the years that he cooperated with the Communist secret police have hurt him. He vehemently denies these allegations, even after new documents emerged last year that suggest he was a paid informant for the Communists. Lukasz Pawlowski is managing editor of Kultura Liberalna, a centrist think tank. He questions whether Walesa can return to political relevance in Poland.

LUKASZ PAWLOWSKI: He is more of a symbol, a very difficult symbol even to his defenders because he quite often takes quite controversial positions on day-to-day political issues and quite often doesn't explain his positions very clearly.

NELSON: Pawlowski says Poles should instead look for new political leaders among the younger generation. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Gdansk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.