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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Aleksander Kwasniewski : Rising From the Ashes of Communism in Poland

<i> Dean E. Murphy is Warsaw bureau chief for The Times. </i>

His victory caught much of the world by surprise, but, in fact, it was a carefully executed ascent from the political ruins of communism that won Aleksander Kwasniewski, 41, the Polish presidency two weeks ago.

In 1989, when Kwasniewski was a young minister in the last communist regime to govern Poland, he sat opposite Solidarity leader Lech Walesa in round-table talks that led to the peaceful passing of communism. Though always reform-minded, Kwasniewski was the consummate insider and did not abandon the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) until it ceased to exist.

Young, urbane and ambitious, Kwasniewski quickly collected the broken pieces of the PZPR and established the Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland, a party of ex-communists committed to economic and democratic reforms with a socialist bent. A year later, he united a hodgepodge of left-wing parties and created the Democratic Left Alliance, which he led until Nov. 25, when he resigned in a symbolic move to unify the country.

By 1993, the coalition controlled both houses of Parliament and was running the government with a junior partner. But Kwasniewski’s presidential victory was the ex-communists’ ultimate achievement. Six years after the arrival of democracy, a former communist assumed Poland’s top job--this time by a free vote.

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Well-spoken and always seeking compromise, Kwasniewski was the reverse image of Walesa, the fiery protest-leader-turned-president he defeated by 650,000 votes of 19 million cast. Voters said he appeared dignified and presidential; they liked his emphasis on getting along. He did especially well among those unhappy with the hardships of transition.

Several days after the election, Kwasniewski broke from the task of setting up his presidential chancellery to speak with The Times in the Przezdziecki Palace, a reconstructed 19th-Century nobleman’s library where he has his office until Dec. 23, when his term begins. Though visibly weary, he spoke in English and with enthusiasm. Afterward, he left for a weekend getaway with his wife and daughter.

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Question: You have achieved what many people considered the unthinkable. Why did you win?

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Answer: Six years ago, I didn’t hope, I didn’t dream that in 1995 I would win the presidential election. But the situation in Poland changed very fast, and became totally unpredictable. Poland is going on this democratic way faster than we thought before.

The important point for me was the victory of the Social Democratic Party, which I established, in parliamentary elections in 1993. People voted in that election against two utopias. The first utopia was connected with socialism under the old system. It had collapsed and was totally rejected. The second utopia was the next period of principled liberalism, this invisible hand of the free market and all such formulations. That election was the first step.

This presidential election was the next step. The people who voted for me are expecting pragmatism, normality, stability and a continuation of the reforms. But they also expect some predictable policy. And they want to concentrate on the future.

Q: Should the West be afraid of you?

A: For two years, we have been in the government. I remember the fears two years ago, when it was said that, with such a left alliance in the government, there will be problems with relations with the West, higher inflation and no growth. Now we see, after two years, that we have the highest growth in Europe, we have less unemployment than before, we have good relations with our Western partners, and we have reduced our debt with the Paris Club and London Club. It means the situation is normal here, and I don’t see reasons to fear for the main elements of reform in Poland.

Q: Will Poland’s chances of joining NATO be harmed by your victory?

A: For Polish membership in the European Union and Polish membership in NATO, we have quite a large consensus among the main, most serious political groups. These goals are very common for each serious politician in Poland. I am sure we can reach full membership in NATO and the European Union in the period of this presidency.

Q: Will you place greater importance on closer relations with Russia?

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A: I think we should be, maybe not closer, but much more active in our relations with Russia. If I have a general positive opinion about our foreign policy the last five years--the level of relations with Germany, France, the United States and the European Union--I am much more critical of the state of Polish relations with our Eastern neighbors, such as Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

Better relations with our Eastern neighbors is very important for our Western partners as well. It is not by accident that the first words President Clinton spoke about my victory were that while he appreciates our approach to NATO, he also appreciates a lot that I am speaking about better relations with Russia, Ukraine and Belarus . . . . In the concept of European integration, Poland should always be an element of stability, not an element of tension.

Q: Many Solidarity activists who worked in the opposition in the 1980s have been unable to match your success. Is your victory a vindication for the path you chose, that is, trying to reform communism from within?

A: To some extent, yes. But this victory is not so connected with the past. The voters didn’t vote for the past, for the communists or Solidarity, and so on. That is a wrong concept . . . . We must remember that we have had six years of new experiences. For me, what this man did before 1989--was he in the party or the opposition--is important, but it is not the final argument, because this man has also lived in Poland after 1989. My question is, what has he done for privatization, the free-market economy, democracy and our relations with the world?

Some people from Solidarity were fantastic in the revolution, in destroying the system, but they were unprepared to build a new state, to build new parties, to organize popular support, to integrate political leaders and social groups. We have new times. To some extent in this election, it was a choice between a revolutionary man, Mr. Walesa, and a more pragmatic and normal man--I mean Kwasniewski.

Q: Why did you join the PZPR in 1977?

A: For me, for my generation, it was important that in this system, we had reform--but, of course, within geopolitical limits. We had borders with the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union. We didn’t think it was possible to fight and to win against the Soviet Union . . . . Our concept was: We can reform, we should reform and we will try to reform.

Today, with all my experiences since then, I know that without the opposition, without Solidarity, without the big social struggle, it would have been impossible to reform such a system. It was a huge party . . . too strong to reform from inside. The power of inertia was unbelievable. But the role of the so-called reformists within the party was quite important.

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Q: Do you still believe it was the right decision?

A: It is impossible to change the situation. But I can imagine a quite different way of mine in the past. Maybe if I had not been in the economics department at Gdansk University, but in humanities, I would have been much closer to Solidarity, because it was much stronger in that department than mine.

I started to see the world very early. My first trip to Britain was in 1974, during my first year in university. I saw at this time that the system in Poland needed to change, because I could see the difference between normal democratic countries and Poland was huge. We could not have a good economy under such conditions and rules that we had in Poland, and that if we wanted to be normal, we should accept democracy and pluralism. To me, the question of making reforms was not an issue, it was only how to do it.

Q: Lech Walesa says he will not attend your inauguration because he holds you in such contempt. Do you understand his bitterness?

A: I can understand the frustration of Mr. Walesa. It was a huge defeat for him, and it was an especially bitter defeat, because he is a hero, a man with a strong position in Polish history. He is a symbol of the Polish fight for democracy, for pluralism and the opening to the world. He has a position in the history books, without a doubt. The problem was his presidency. Mr. Walesa was not a very efficient president. It is difficult to make a symbol into an efficient politician . . . .

I am sure that Mr. Walesa, after this time of stress and frustration, will understand that, in Poland, we have enough space for voters of Kwasniewski and voters of Walesa. And, in Poland, we have enough space for Mr. Walesa. He can play an important role in creating an atmosphere of democracy, of reconciliation, of cooperation between people. It is not the interest of Kwasniewski or Walesa, it is our common Polish interest to eliminate or reduce divisions in Polish society. In this sense, Mr. Walesa has a lot to do.

Q: Nearly half the electorate voted against you. How will you heal the wounds?

A: First, I will do what is possible in my own speeches. My first words after the election were about creating a common Poland . . . . A lot depends on the kind of politics that follows. If it is aggressive or nonaggressive, if it is open or closed, oriented for only one political group or for many political groups. I would like to propose such a style of politics that includes people from other political groups. We will see if they follow me.

Q: What advice would you offer to ex-communists in other countries who would like to repeat your success?

A: I am very careful with such advice. All of these communist systems were very different. It is very bad if someone thinks he has a recipe for everybody . . . . I am confident saying that, in politics at the end of this century, the role of ideology is very weak. Any party that focuses on ideology first is without any real chances. Also, in all our countries, the question of the past will play a role, but not as much of a role as some politicians would like to make it.

Third, all the changes in Europe are very positive, and there is no chance of looking for another way. We should protect and develop the main elements of the changes . . . . Last, you need to have growth of the economy and solve social problems at the same time. If a government is interested in economic matters only, it is bad, because a social revolution will come. It is very bad if a government is interested only in social problems, because it means a collapse of the economy and no ability to solve the problems.

In my opinion, the reason why we won this election was our success in finding this very fine line of compromise between the necessities of economic growth and social needs.

Q: Solidarity activists are seeking to invalidate the election because, among other things, you falsely claimed to have a university degree. Why did you say that?

A: Today’s protest is frustration. But it is a very dangerous notion if someone really tried to invalidate the election, because it would mean some kind of revolution . . . . It means he would invalidate democracy in Poland, with all of the consequences.

The election was a very emotional fight, and a lot of people were very engaged in it. And now that is a problem. We have winners and we have losers. I didn’t create an atmosphere of triumph. It would be easy to say, lets go to the main square in Warsaw and organize a rally of supporters. I am against that. The campaign is finished now.

Q: But why give your opponents a target by misstating your education?

A: It is not a mistake. I completed my education. The only thing I don’t have is the diploma. What was I supposed to do, say I didn’t spend five years studying at the university? . . . If it wasn’t this question, they would have found another question to raise about me.

Q: If we speak again after five years, what will you have accomplished?

A: If, after these five years, I can say we have a new constitution, we have more democracy, we have continued economic growth, we have less unemployed people and we are members of European structures, I can say my main tasks have been realized.*


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