Ex-Soviet bloc leaders mark Polish vote that broke communism
Thursday marked the 20th anniversary of the 1989 ballot which helped the Polish Solidarity freedom movement drive Warsaw's regime bloodlessly from power.Krakow -- Leaders from across the former Soviet bloc assembled in Poland on Thursday to mark the 20th anniversary of the landmark election that sped the demise of communist rule across Europe.
Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk welcomed counterparts from neighbouring states at the start of commemorations of the June 4, 1989 ballot which helped the Solidarity freedom movement drive Warsaw's regime bloodlessly from power.
Polish newspapers adapted their banners in a nod to Solidarity's striking logo, which resembled a surging crowd bearing Poland's red and white flag. The slogan "The Impossible Is Possible" was plastered on billboards across the country.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 has become the enduring image of that watershed year when regimes toppled like dominoes across the region, mostly peacefully.
That ruffles feathers in Poland, where many feel the country's pioneering role has gone largely forgotten abroad.
Lech Walesa, the iconic Solidarity leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner who became president of newly-democratic Poland in 1990, addressed the gala ceremony.
In an interview with AFP ahead of the celebrations, he underlined that the 1989 vote was "a crucial step towards freedom and democracy."
"The elections in Poland broke the teeth of the communist bear and, once the toothless bear was unable to bite, the Berlin Wall could be brought down," he said.
The 1989 general election was the core of the "Round Table" deal struck in April by Warsaw's communists and the still-banned Solidarity.
For the first time, a ruling communist party decided to grant an opposition movement a formal, albeit restricted, role.
The regime -- which failed to crush Solidarity's first freedom drive by declaring martial law in 1981 -- saw the election as means to stem a deep economic and political crisis.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, in power since 1985, allowed Moscow's satellites to chart their own course. The spectre of Red Army intervention had stifled past reforms.
The vote was only partially free, because Solidarity was not allowed to contest all the seats in parliament. But the ballot became a plebiscite, and Warsaw's regime unravelled as pro-reform communists broke ranks.
Incapable of forming a government, the communists ceded the initiative to Solidarity's Tadeusz Mazowiecki, insisting he include a few party members as ministers. He became premier in August 1989.
"Twenty years ago, the impossible became possible,” Mazowiecki said in a speech to parliament on the eve of Thursday's ceremonies. “We achieved what was considered unattainable."
The Polish vote spurred dissidents elsewhere, leading to the demise of the entire Soviet bloc by 1991 and paving the way for the European Union's eastward expansion in 2004.