Poland marks landmark vote that rang the Soviet bloc's death knell

Gdansk (Poland) (AFP) –


European Council President Donald Tusk on Tuesday hailed the Polish election 30 years ago that heralded the peaceful demise of the entire Soviet bloc, holding it up as a reminder that China's bloody Tiananmen crackdown that same day was not the only possible outcome of a fight for freedom.

"Poland showed Europe and the world that it's possible to build a democracy, give people freedom and control over authority without violence and bloodshed," Tusk told a crowd of 10,000 in the Baltic port city of Gdansk.

The former Polish premier said there was also "the Chinese example where a certain group of people also dreamt of freedom and democracy and were run over by tanks and shot before the eyes of the world."

"These two visions are also present today in the world and in Europe.... This is a dilemma that also applies to our future, not just our past. We must remember this lesson about Poland and China."

On June 4, 1989, after so-called Round Table negotiations between the regime of General Wojciech Jaruzelski and the opposition led by anti-communist icon Lech Walesa, Poles voted in a semi-free parliamentary election -- a first behind the Iron Curtain.

Solidarity swept the seats it was allowed to contest on the ballot and, with the support of breakaways from the regime, formed the Soviet bloc's first non-communist government under Tadeusz Mazowiecki.

That was in October 1989. A month later the Berlin Wall fell and by 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed.

Poland went on to join NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004.

- 'Fed up' -

Retired engineer Waldemar Miszczak, who made the trip to Gdansk for the anniversary from his central town of Zdunska Wola, recalled how difficult it was to live under communism.

"We were fed up, we wanted the sad reality to end. The (election) result made us happy, even if we didn't know what would happen next," Miszczak said, holding up Polish and EU flags.

"Let's not forget that at the time thousands of Soviet soldiers were stationed across Poland," he told AFP.

Earlier Tuesday, Walesa told the crowd that "our generation succeeded at something incredible: we offered the world a new chance, and we did it without starting a nuclear war."

The former leader of the freedom-fighting Solidarity trade union then warned against the dangers of demagoguery, populism and income inequality in capitalist societies today.

"Neither communism nor the current capitalism suits the 21st century. The people will not accept the kind of distribution of wealth that we have today and which is at risk of continuing," Walesa said.

The ceremony was hosted by current Polish opposition politicians. No representative of the governing right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party attended, though a letter from President Andrzej Duda was read out to the crowd.

Duda also delivered a speech to the senate in Warsaw, saying that in 1989 "we could have done things better" and that "mistakes" had been made.

But he also expressed gratitude towards those who at the time had fought "for a democratic, free and sovereign Poland."