Courageous opposition in Poland bigger inspiration for Czechs than semi-free 1989 elections, says former dissident

Czech President Miloš Zeman is just one of a number of foreign leaders who have gathered in Warsaw on Wednesday to mark the 25th anniversary of Poland’s first partially free elections, a milestone on the road to democracy in the then Eastern Bloc. But what did that historic vote mean for the opposition in Czechoslovakia at the time? That’s a question I put to journalist and former dissident Jan Macháček.

Jan Macháček,  photo: Khalil Baalbaki
“I would say that what was much more important for the dissent here was the overall impact of developments in Poland since the beginning of the ‘80s. Especially for the second generation of dissent, the second generation of the underground. In publishing for instance – it was always a great source of inspiration.

“But I don’t think there was any direct inspiration from these semi-free elections. We already felt like we were lagging behind not only Poland – we also felt very strongly that we were lagging behind the Soviet Union at the time.”

Were there any contacts between the Czech opposition and the opposition in Poland?

“Yes, contacts were very frequent. There was a movement called Czechoslovak-Polish Solidarnosc, Czechoslovak-Polish Solidarity, which was very active in the second half of the 1980s, starting in ’87, ’88.

“But the contacts and links were traditional even before that. There were meetings between dissidents from the Czech Republic and Poland. They were usually under heavy conspiracy and in the mountains somewhere. These meetings were getting more frequent a few years before the collapse of communism.

“Also there was very frequent smuggling of books, because since in Poland they already had partial freedoms at the end of the ‘80s, and especially after these free elections, books were frequently smuggled from Poland to Czechoslovakia.”

I’ve been reading that many Poles apparently believe that their partially free elections were just as significant as the fall of the Berlin Wall on the road to the end of communism. Is that a view you would accept?

“Well, I understand that’s what Poles say, and if I were a Pole I would probably say the same thing, because every country has its own big anniversary of 1989.

“We Czechs have November 17 and we think it was absolutely crucial and Poles have this date. Everyone would like his date to sort of be shared by others as the most significant date.

“But given the fact that Poland is a four times bigger country than the Czech Republic, given the size of the population, and given the fact that Poles were fighting the totalitarian regime very courageously, it’s not surprising that they would like everyone to relate to this date as a sort of breakthrough.

“But on the other hand the weak point is that they negotiated semi-free elections – they weren’t fully free but were something like controlled elections.

“Paradoxically, even though they were much more progressive and courageous in fighting the regime, they then lagged behind because other countries already had their first fully free elections in 1990 while in Poland they still had to respect the arrangements of the Round Table.”