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lechwalesaLech Wałęsa (born 29 September 1943) is a Polish politician, trade-union organizer, and human-rights activist. A charismatic leader, he co-founded Solidarity (Solidarność), the Soviet bloc's first independent trade union, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, and served as President of Poland between 1990 and 1995.[3]

Wałęsa was an electrician by trade, with no higher education. Soon after beginning work at the Gdańsk (then, "Lenin") Shipyards, he became a trade-union activist. For this he was persecuted by the Polish communist government, placed under surveillance, fired in 1976, and arrested several times. In August 1980 he was instrumental in negotiations that led to the ground-breaking Gdańsk Agreement between striking workers and the government, and he became a co-founder of the Solidarity trade-union movement. Arrested again after martial law was imposed and Solidarity was outlawed, upon release he continued his activism and was prominent in the establishment of the 1989 Round Table Agreement that led to semi-free parliamentary elections in June 1989 and to a Solidarity-led government.

In 1990 he successfully ran for the 1989-newly re-established office of President of Poland. He presided over Poland's transformation from a communist to a post-communist state. After he narrowly lost the 1995 presidential election, his role in Polish politics was diminished. His international fame remains, however, and he speaks and lectures in Poland and abroad on history and politics.


Wałęsa was born in Popowo, Poland, on 29 September 1943.[3] His father Bolesław was a carpenter who was arrested by the Nazis before Lech was born and thrown into the concentration camp at Mlyniec. Boleslaw returned home after the war but lived only two months before succumbing to exhaustion and illness - he was not yet 34 years old.[4]

In 1961 Lech graduated from primary and vocational school in nearby Chalin and Lipno as a qualified electrician, worked from 1961 to 1965 as a car mechanic, then embarked on his two year obligatory stint of military service, attaining the rank of corporal, before beginning work at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk (Stocznia Gdańska im. Lenina, now the Gdańsk Shipyard, Stocznia Gdańska) as an electrician on 12 July 1967.[5]

On 8 December 1969 he married Danuta Gołoś. The couple have eight children: Bogdan, Sławomir, Przemysław, Jarosław, Magdalena, Anna, Maria-Wiktoria, Brygida.[6][7]


From early on, Wałęsa was interested in workers' concerns; in 1968 he encouraged shipyard colleagues to boycott official rallies that condemned recent student strikes.[6] A charismatic leader,[8] he was an organizer of the illegal 1970 strikes at the Gdańsk Shipyard (the Polish 1970 protests) when workers protested the government's decree raising food prices; he was considered for chairman of the strike committee.[3][6] The strikes' outcome, involving over 30 worker deaths, galvanized his views on the need for change.[6] In June 1976, Wałęsa lost his job at the Gdańsk Shipyards for his continued involvement in illegal unions, strikes and a campaign to commemorate the victims of the 1970 protests.[3][6][7] Afterwards, he worked as an electrician for several other companies, but was continually laid off for his activism and was jobless for long periods.[6] He and his family were under constant surveillance by the Polish secret police; his home and workplace were always bugged.[6] Over the next few years, he was arrested several times for participating in dissident activities.[3]

Wałęsa worked closely with the Workers' Defence Committee (KOR), a group that emerged to lend aid to individuals arrested after 1976 labor strikes and to their families.[3] In June 1978 he became an activist of the underground Free Trade Unions of the Coast (Wolne Związki Zawodowe Wybrzeża).[7] On 14 August 1980, after another food-price hike led to a strike at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk—a strike of which he was one of the instigators—Wałęsa scaled the shipyard fence and, once inside, quickly became one of the strike leaders.[3][6] The strike inspired similar strikes, first at Gdańsk, then across Poland. Wałęsa headed the Inter-Plant Strike Committee, coordinating the workers at Gdańsk and at 20 other plants in the region.[3] On 31 August, the communist government, represented by Mieczysław Jagielski, signed an accord (the Gdańsk Agreement) with the Strike Coordinating Committee.[3] The agreement, besides granting the Lenin Shipyard workers the right to strike, permitted them to form their own independent trade union.[9] The Strike Coordinating Committee legalized itself as the National Coordinating Committee of the Solidarność (Solidarity) Free Trade Union, and Wałęsa was chosen chairman of the Committee.[3][7] The Solidarity trade union quickly grew, ultimately claiming over 10 million members—more than a quarter of Poland's population.[10] Wałęsa's role in the strike, in the negotiations, and in the newly formed independent trade union gained him fame on the international stage.[3][6]

Wałęsa held his position until 13 December 1981, when General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law.[3] Wałęsa, like many other Solidarity leaders and activists, was arrested; he would be incarcerated for 11 months at several eastern towns (Chylice, Otwock, and Arłamów, near the Soviet border) until 14 November 1982.[6][7] On 8 October 1982, Solidarity was outlawed.[11] In 1983 Wałęsa applied to return to the Gdańsk Shipyard as a simple electrician.[6] That same year, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.[3] He was unable to accept it himself, fearing that Poland's government would not let him back into the country.[3][6] His wife Danuta accepted the prize on his behalf.[3][6]

Through the mid-1980s, Wałęsa continued underground Solidarity-related activities.[12] Every issue of the leading underground weekly, Tygodnik Mazowsze, bore his motto, "Solidarity will not be divided or destroyed."[13] Following a 1986 amnesty for Solidarity activists,[14] Wałęsa co-founded the first overt legal Solidarity entity since the declaration of martial law—the Provisional Council of NSZZ Solidarity (Tymczasowa Rada NSZZ Solidarność).[12] From 1987 to 1990, he organized and led the "semi-illegal" Provisional Executive Committee of the Solidarity Trade Union. In late summer 1988, he instigated work-stoppage strikes at the Gdańsk Shipyard.[12]

After months of strikes and political deliberations, at the conclusion of the 10th plenary session of the Polish United Workers Party, or PZPR (the Polish communist party), the government agreed to enter into Round Table Negotiations that lasted from February to April 1989.[3] Wałęsa was an informal leader of the "non-governmental" side in the negotiations.[7] During the talks, he traveled the length and breadth of Poland, giving speeches in support of the negotiations.[3] At the end of the talks, the government signed an agreement to re-establish the Solidarity Trade Union and to organize "semi-free" elections to the Polish parliament (semi-free since, in accordance with the Round Table Agreement, only members of the Communist Party and its allies could stand for 65% of the seats in the Sejm).[3][10][15][16]

In December 1988, Wałęsa co-founded the Solidarity Citizens' Committee.[7] Theoretically it was merely an advisory body, but in practice it was a kind of political party and won the parliamentary elections in June 1989 (Solidarity took all the seats in the Sejm that were subject to free elections, and all but one seat in the newly re-established Senate).[17] Wałęsa was one of Solidarity's most public figures; though he did not run for parliament himself, he was an active campaigner, appearing on many campaign posters.[3] In fact, Solidarity winners in the Sejm elections were referred to as "Wałęsa's team" or "Lech's team," as all those who won had appeared on their election posters together with him.[18][19]

While ostensibly only chairman of Solidarity, Wałęsa played a key role in practical politics. At the end of 1989 he persuaded leaders of former communist-allied parties to form a non-communist coalition government – the first non-Communist government in the Soviet Bloc. The parliament elected Tadeusz Mazowiecki as prime minister – the first non-communist Polish prime minister in over four decades.[10]


Following the June 1989 parliamentary elections, Wałęsa was disappointed that some of his former comrades-in-arms were satisfied to govern alongside former communists.[10] He decided to run for the newly re-established office of president, using the slogan, "I don't want to, but I've got no choice" ("Nie chcem, ale muszem.").[3][10] On 9 December 1990, Wałęsa won the presidential election, defeating Prime Minister Mazowiecki and other candidates to become the first democratically elected president of Poland.[6] In 1993 he founded his own political party, the Nonpartisan Bloc for Support of Reforms (BBWR – the initials echoed those of Józef Piłsudski's "Nonpartisan Bloc for Cooperation with the Government," of 1928–35, likewise an ostensibly non-political organization).

During his presidency, Wałęsa saw Poland through privatization and transition to a free-market economy (the Balcerowicz Plan), Poland's 1991 first completely free parliamentary elections, and a period of redefinition of Poland's foreign relations.[3][8] He successfully negotiated the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Polish soil and won a substantial reduction in Poland's foreign debts.[6]

Wałęsa supported Poland's entry into NATO and into the European Union (both these goals would be realized after his presidency, in 1999 and 2004, respectively).[6] In the early 1990s, Wałęsa proposed the creation of a "NATO bis" as a sub-regional security system. The concept, while supported by right-wing and populist movements in Poland, garnered little support abroad; Poland's neighbors, some of whom (e.g., Lithuania) had only recently regained independence, tended to see the proposal as Polish "neo-imperialism."[10][20]

Wałęsa has been criticized for a confrontational style and for instigating "war at the top," whereby former Solidarity allies clashed with one another, causing annual changes of government.[8][10][13][21][22] This increasingly isolated Wałęsa on the political scene.[23] As he lost more and more political allies, he came to be surrounded by people who were viewed by the public as incompetent and disreputable.[13][23] Mudslinging during election campaigns tarnished his reputation.[3][24] The ex-electrician with no higher education was thought by some to be too plain-spoken and too undignified for the post of president.[8][10][25] Others thought him too erratic in his views[10][22][26] or complained that he was too authoritarian – that he sought to strengthen his own power at the expense of the Sejm.[10][22][23][25] Finally, Wałęsa's problems were compounded by the difficult transition to a market economy; while in the long run it was seen as highly successful, it lost Wałęsa's government much popular support.[22][23][27]

Wałęsa's BBWR performed poorly in the 1993 parliamentary elections; at times his popular support dwindled to some 10%, and he narrowly lost the 1995 presidential election, gathering 48.72% of the vote in the run-off against Aleksander Kwaśniewski, who represented the resurgent Polish post-communists (the Democratic Left Alliance, SLD).[3][10][23] Wałęsa's fate was sealed by his poor handling of the media; in the televised debates, he came off as incoherent and rude; at the end of the first of the two debates, in response to Kwaśniewski's extended hand, he replied that the post-communist leader could "shake his leg."[23] After the election, Wałęsa said he was going to go into "political retirement," and his role in politics became increasingly marginal.[21][28][29]

Later years

Since the end of his presidency, Wałęsa has lectured on Central European history and politics at various universities and organizations.[30][31] In 1996 he founded the Lech Wałęsa Institute, a think tank whose mission is to support democracy and local governments in Poland and throughout the world.[6] In 1997 he helped organize a new party, Christian Democracy of the 3rd Polish Republic;[12] he also supported the coalition Solidarity Electoral Action (Akcja Wyborcza Solidarność), which won the 1997 parliamentary elections.[10][12] However, the party's real leader and main organizer was a new Solidarity Trade Union leader, Marian Krzaklewski.[32] Wałęsa ran again in the 2000 presidential election, but received only 1% of the vote.[24] During Poland's 2005 presidential elections, Wałęsa supported Donald Tusk, saying that he was the best candidate.[33]

In 2006 Wałęsa quit Solidarity, citing differences over the union's support of the Law and Justice party, and the rise to power of Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński.[34] On 27 February 2008, at Methodist DeBakey Heart and Vascular Center, in Houston, Texas, in the United States, Wałęsa underwent a coronary artery stent placement and the implantation of a cardiac pacemaker.[35] In the run-up to the 2009 European Parliament elections, he appeared at a rally in Rome to endorse the pan-European Eurosceptic party Libertas, describing it and its founder Declan Ganley as "a force for good in the world."[36][37] Wałęsa admitted that he had been paid to give the speech but claimed to support Civic Platform, while expressing the hope that Libertas candidates would be elected to the European Parliament.[36]

He is member of the international advisory council of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.[38]


[1] Wałęsa | Define Wałęsa at Dictionary.com
[2] "Walesa", The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, retrieved 17 December 2010.
[3] a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w "CNN Cold War – Profile: Lech Walesa". CNN. Archived from the original on 15 April 2008. Retrieved 19 August 2007.
[4] Pages 129-131. Walesa, Lech. "The Struggle and the Triumph: An Autobiography". Arcade Publishing (1991). ISBN 1-55970-221-4
[5] Page 95. Walesa, Lech. "The Struggle and the Triumph: An Autobiography". Arcade Publishing (1991). ISBN 1-55970-221-4
[6] a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q A Biographical Note, Lech Walesa Institute
[7] a b c d e f g h i ON THE FOUNDER, Lech Walesa Institute
[8] a b c d "Lech Wałęsa," Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 11 January 2010, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/634519/Lech-Walesa
[9] Hunter, Richard J.; Leo V. Ryan (1998). From Autarchy to Market: Polish Economics and Politics 1945–1995. Westport, CN: Praeger. p. 51. ISBN 0275962199.
[10] a b c d e f g h i j k l m Timothy Garton Ash, Lech Walesa, TIME magazine,"The Most Important People of the Century", 13 April 1998
[11] Perdue, William D (October 1995) (ebook). Paradox of Change: The Rise and Fall of Solidarity in the New Poland. Praeger/Greenwood. p. 9. ISBN 0275952959. Retrieved 10 July 2006.
[12] a b c d e f (Polish) Wałęsa Lech, Encyklopedia WIEM
[13] a b c Timothy Garton Ash, "Poland After Solidarity," The New York Review of Books, vol. 38, no. 11 (13 June 1991).
[14] "Negotiations and the big debate (1984–88)". BBC News. Retrieved 10 July 2006.
[15] "Half-free and far from easy: Poland's election," The Economist, 27 May 1989.
[16] Lewis Pauk, "Non-Competitive Elections and Regime Change: Poland 1989," Parliamentary Affairs, 1990, 43: 90–107.
[17] POLAND. Parliamentary Chamber: Sejm. Elections held in 1989. Inter-Parliamentary Union. Last accessed 28 January 2010.
[18] Grażyna Zwolińska, (Polish) Historyczne wybory 4 czerwca 1989: Zwycięstwo drużyny Lecha ("Historic Elections of 4 June 1989: Victory of Lech's Team", Gazeta Lubuska, 6 June 2009.
[19] Jarosław Osowski, (Polish) "Warszawska drużyna Lecha Wałęsy" ("Lech Wałęsa's Warsaw Team"), Gazeta Wyborcza, 4 June 2009.
[20] Monika Wohlefeld, 1996,"Security Cooperation in Central Europe: Polish Views. NATO," 1996.
[21] a b From "Walesa, Lech," Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia, 2001.
[22] a b c d Jane Perlez, "Walesa, Once atop a High Pedestal, Seems to Stand on a Slippery Slope", New York Times, 6 July 1994.
[23] a b c d e f Voytek Zubek, "The Eclipse of Walesa's Political Career," Europe-Asia Studies, vol. 49, no. 1 (January 1997), pp. 107–24.
[24] a b Wojtek Kosc, "Here He Comes Again: The Predicted Re-election of Kwaśniewski," Central Europe Review, vol. 2, no. 35, 16 October 2000.
[25] a b "Lech Walesa (1943– )," A Guide to the 20th century: Who's Who, Channel 4.
[26] a b "Economist article". Economist article. 22 September 1990. Retrieved 21 April 2009.
[27] Danielle Lussier, "From Solidarity to Division: An Analysis of Lech Walesa's Transition to Constituted Leadership", working paper, UC Berkeley.
[28] Wojtek Kosc, "Here He Comes Again: Poland: Heating Up for the Presidency," Central Europe Review, vol. 2, no. 10, 13 March 2000.
[29] "Europe: Poland: Walesa In Polystyrene," New York Times, 17 December 2003.
[30] Jane Perlez, "Out of a Job, Walesa Decides to Take to the Lecture Circuit," New York Times, 29 February 1996.
[31] a b c Etgar Lefkovits, Walesa: World needs to combat Iranian threat, The Jerusalem Post, 15 Jan 2008
[32] .Krzysztof Jasiewicz, "The 2000 presidential election in Poland," The National Council for Eurasian and East European Research, 2001.
[33] Judy Dempsey, "Warsaw Mayor Is Poised to Win Runoff in Poland," New York Times, 24 October 2005.
[34] "Lech Walesa Quits Solidarity," Wikinews, Tuesday, 22 August 2006.
[35] Nichols, Bruce (4 March 2008). "Walesa leaves Texas hospital after heart treatment Reuters". Uk.reuters.com. Retrieved 21 April 2009.
[36] a b Gibbons, Fiachra (7 May 2009). "Libertas, Lech and some odd bedfellows". France24 (France 24, RADIO FRANCE INTERNATIONALE). Retrieved 11 May 2009.
[37] Jarosław Walesa, Poland, One to watch – 25 May 2009, France 24, RADIO FRANCE INTERNATIONALE
[38] "International Advisory Council". Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Archived from the original on 20 May 2011. Retrieved 20 May 2011.

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