'Don’t waste this wonderful opportunity,' Walesa says of democracy

Mark Hicks Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Rochester — Former Poland president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Wałęsa has spent decades fighting against communism and seeking change.

In today's climate, bridging differences is the best way to spur transformations in governments, social policies and modern living around the globe, he told an audience Friday night.

"Make sure that you don’t waste this wonderful opportunity which we have been given," Walesa said through a translator. "Not really much is needed. At the moment, just focus on debating, meeting people, discussing things. In order to identify the problems properly, listen to the different solutions different individuals have, and choose the best ones."

Those themes guided Walesa's Varner Vitality Lecture at Oakland University.

Nearly 1,000 people attended to hear the internationally recognized figure speak about his country's past, its ties to the present and plans for the future. 

His visit was significant since Walesa is "a person who remains a lasting symbol of courage and purposeful defiance in the face of totalitarianism," Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, Oakland University's president, told the audience. "... We have a guest whose actions at a critical time in history embody the highest aspirations for those who believe freedom is an indivisible right regardless of your country, your race, your ethnicity, your political affiliation or your gender."

Walesa, a Polish electrician turned politician, trade-union organizer, philanthropist and human rights activist, spent nearly an hour fielding questions about his country's struggle and other issues affecting Eastern Europe as well as the United States.

He reflected on U.S.' role before communism ended.

"Wherever there was trouble, people could hope that the United States would come to the rescue. And for many countries, the United States was like the ultimate refuge," he said. "But its situation was much easier because there existed an evil empire at the same time.  ... We have put an end to the evil empire. So the question arises: what should the role of the United States (be) today? Who should be the leader of (the) world?  And if we do not have a leader, this is a very dangerous situation in the history of mankind."

Walesa added: "We have to do everything we can for the United States to regain its leadership position. But we are talking about a totally different model of leadership than we used to have."

On the same day the U.S. House Intelligence committee held its second public impeachment inquiry hearing into President Donald Trump and featuring former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, moderator Carol Cain asked Walesa's views on Trump. Trump had criticized Yovanovitch on Twitter during the hearing.

Walesa said the businessman "has a very good diagnosis of almost everything he claims. But I disagree with the treatment he wants to apply. So I guess he needs to be assisted ..."

He earlier noted modern international political movements have resulted from a desire for major change, but some of the leaders elected "don’t really solve the problems that need solving and they solve them wrongly."

Walesa's words inspired Renee Schram of Washington Township, who attended her first speech from a foreign president.

"The world needs to be more united, especially our democracies," she said after the event. "We shouldn't let corrupt governments take our democracy from us. We need to protect it. We need the right leaders in place. He's an example of a great leader."

In a meeting with reporters Friday morning, Walesa said people around the world must be vigilant against demagoguery and should stoke appreciation for democracy.

The outspoken Wałęsa arrived in a black T-shirt that proclaimed “Constitution Is Being Violated” in Polish block letters. He made clear the shirt's message didn’t just refer to his native country.

“This is an era of discussion and debate,” Walesa said. “But even democracy, which we are proud of, requires reform and redefinition.

“We underestimated democracy in Poland and allowed populists and demagogues to influence the election," he said. "You have to do everything you can to prevent this. … If you underestimate democracy, you will be in trouble.”

Former Poland President Lech Walesa shows off his T-shirt that translates into 'Constitution.'

In 2018, Walesa signed a letter to the European Union that protested abuses of power by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party. 

The former Polish president told Foreign Policy magazine this week that "there is no leadership" from the United States in the post-communist era. The American government and other organizations successfully defeated communism, but new structures have not emerged yet to revive trust among nations, he told the magazine.

Walesa co-founded Solidarity, the Soviet Union bloc’s first independent trade union, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 and served as president of Poland from 1990 to 1995.

While he didn’t mention U.S. politics specifically, Peter Trumbore, head of Oakland University’s political science department, said the shirt was intentional.

“I think he was sending a message by wearing it — and not just for Poland,” said Trumbore, who described Walesa as a “pivotal 20th-century figure.”

Walesa remains active in Polish politics and lectured on Central European history and politics at various universities and organizations and has written books. 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.

“Bringing in Lech Wałęsa to campus continues a strong tradition of great Varner Vitality Series speakers,” said James Lentini, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. “His perspective on the fall of the Berlin Wall and sharing stories of his personal struggles, should remind us all of the freedoms and liberties we sometimes take for granted in our country.”

The Berlin Wall divided democratic West Germany and communist East Germany, and its fall in 1989 began the disintegration of the old Soviet Union and other allied Eastern European countries. 

In 1980, Wałęsa was a leader in the Lenin Shipyard strike in Gdansk, Poland, where workers upset by prices set by the Communist government demanded the right to organize free and independent trade unions. In September 1981, he was elected Solidarity chairman at the First National Solidarity Congress in Gdansk and was recognized by several international news organizations and named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year.”

Poland imposed martial law later that year and arrested many of its leaders, including Walesa, who was kept in a rural country house as Solidarity was suspended. He was released in 1982 but kept under surveillance as he kept contact with Solidarity leaders in the underground.

Under Walesa's leadership, Poland became a model of economic and political reform for the rest of Eastern Europe and received one of the first invitations to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a group of countries allied against military threats from the former Soviet Union and later Russia.

“President Walesa played a significant role in world politics at the end of the 20th century, and his work is something we still discuss in political science,” said Dave Dulio, director of Oakland University's Center for Civic Engagement. “Indeed, he significantly changed Poland and impacted the world.”