Former Polish communist leader Edward Gierek, who was toppled in 1980 by a bloodless revolution that produced Solidarity, Eastern Europe's first independent labor movement, died Sunday. He was 88.
The PAP news agency quoted Gierek's son Adam as saying the former leader, who tried to introduce some Western-style reforms in the 1970s but left Poland deep in debt, had died in the southern town of Cieszyn of a mining-related lung ailment.
Gierek, who had worked as a youth in coal mines in France and Belgium, became the first secretary of Poland's ruling Communist Party in 1970. His predecessor, Wladyslaw Gomulka, was forced to step down after violent food price riots in which more than 40 workers were shot to death.
The tall, burly party boss, remembered with nostalgia by many older Poles, introduced a new, more relaxed style of rule that included cultural amenities and more freedom to travel to the West than permitted by other Soviet bloc countries.
His departures from orthodox communist rule included licenses for the Fiat mini-car that helped put Poland on wheels, buses from France, tractors from Britain and American Coca-Cola and Marlboros.
"It was under Gierek that the end of the Stalin style of governing really took place," said Janusz Rolicki, a journalist who wrote a book on him.
But in his efforts to introduce Western-style consumerism in Poland, Gierek took more than $30 billion in loans from Western countries and banks, much of which was wasted on ill-considered industrial projects.
Now, 12 years after the fall of communist rule, Poland is still repaying this debt.
Gierek was swept from office in 1980 amid food price protests that led to the emergence of Solidarity, the Soviet bloc's first free trade union.
He was eventually replaced as communist leader by General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who imposed martial law in 1981 to crush Solidarity.
Historians say that, despite his limited pro-reform drive, Gierek remained subservient to the Soviet Union, which had controlled Eastern Europe since the end of World War II.
The nascent anti-communist opposition was persecuted during his rule.
He achieved a truce with the nation's powerful Roman Catholic Church and toward the end of his rule welcomed Polish-born Pope John Paul II on his first pilgrimage to his homeland in 1979.
After retiring in 1980, Gierek lived quietly with his wife, Stanislawa, in his native Silesia.