Polish politician Aleksander Kwaśniewski (born 1954) served two terms as president of his country between 1995 and 2005, disproving critics who claimed that the former Communist would lead Poland back to the bleak days of one-party, authoritarian rule. Instead of cronyism and restrictions on democratic freedoms, Kwaśniewski's decade in office was notable for the several milestones achieved, including Poland's entry into the European Union.
When Kwaśniewski first won the presidency in November of 1995, he admitted that he was "irritated" by reports in the foreign media that consistently identified him as a member of what had been the only political party permitted to exist in Poland from 1948 to 1989, as he told New York Times correspondent Jane Perlez. "Not because I wasn't a member of the party. I was, of course. But first, from an ideological point of view, I was never a Communist. In Poland I've seen very few Communists, especially since the 1970's. I met a lot of technocrats, opportunists, reformers, liberals."
Kwaśniewski was born on November 15, 1954, in Białogard, Poland, a small town located in the western part of Poland, a region once known as Pomerania and part of Germany, though its native citizens were Poles. His father was a physician, and his mother a nurse, and their son was born nine years after the end of World War II. This six-year conflict was yet another chapter in Poland's long struggle as a nation with no natural borders but rich in natural resources and caught between two immensely powerful neighbors and rivals, Russia and Germany. Occupied by Nazi Germany in 1939 in the move that launched World War II, Poland became a battlefield as the Soviet Army moved west to defeat German forces. When the war ended, Soviet troops remained in Poland to restore order, and the psychological and economic devastation of the war—which included the deaths of six million Jews, many of them killed in camps located on Polish soil—enabled the Soviets to install a puppet regime in Warsaw, as they did in several more Eastern European capitals.
Kwaśniewski was able to travel abroad during his young adult years, at a time when obtaining a visa to visit the West was no easy feat. He worked in Sweden, visited London, and in 1976 criss-crossed the United States when he took a job delivering cars for an automotive company. For the July 4, 1976, U.S. Bicentennial celebrations, Kwaśniewski was in New York City for the event, and recalled that the diversity of
Some of Kwaéniewski's travels occurred during his summer breaks from the University of Gdańsk, which he entered in 1973. He studied transport economics and foreign trade for four years, but failed to earn a degree. Because membership in official Communist organizations was obligatory for any Pole who hoped for professional advancement during this era, Kwaśniewski became a member of the Socialist Union of Polish Students, the government-sanctioned group for university students. He held local leadership posts as well as serving on its national leadership council, and was a member of its governing board from 1977, his last year at college, until 1982.
With the job on the governing board, Kwaśniewski moved to Warsaw and formally joined Poland's Communist Party, known more formally as the Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR). In November of 1981 he took over as editor-in-chief of a student newspaper, ITD , a weekly published under PZPR auspices. A month later, its publication was suspended, along with most other news media, when the PZPR First Secretary, General Wojciech Jaruzelski (born 1923), declared martial law. The crackdown was in response to growing dissent across Poland that was reaching into all aspects of life and undermining the control the PZPR had enjoyed for decades. Known as Solidarnoś ś (Solidarity), the opposition movement had its roots in the massive Lenin Shipyards in Gdańsk in the summer of 1980. Workers there, led by an electrician named Lech Wałęsa (born 1943), formed a renegade trade union that became the first independent organization for workers anywhere in the Communist Eastern bloc.
Solidarity was outlawed when martial law was declared, and a PZPR loyalty review process began in all workplaces and institutions. When the publishing ban was finally lifted, Kwaśniewski wrote editorials that were remarkable for their ambiguous take on current events. Outlets like ITD were expected to follow procedure and praise the PZPR's actions and voice support for decisions made by Jaruzelski and the other leaders, but instead Kwaśniewski wrote in one editorial that "It seems important right now for Poles to reject emotions and myths and concentrate on genuine social and state interests," according to another of Perlez's reports. Andrzej Nierychlo, a colleague from that era, recalled the major battles in the office at press time with party censors, telling the New York Times correspondent that Kwaśniewski "was simply ideal for these kinds of talks. He could sit there for hours, squabble over commas and in the end win a major argument."
In early 1984, several months after martial law formally ended, Kwaśniewski became editor-in-chief of Sztandar Młodych (Youth Banner), a daily newspaper also published by the PZPR, and a year later co-founded Bajtek , the first magazine for personal computer enthusiasts in Poland. Soon afterward he joined the government as Minister for Youth Affairs and Sport, and after 1987 served as chair of the Polish Olympic Committee. He held these posts until the very end of the PZPR reign in Poland, and was involved in the relatively peaceful transition as a PZPR leader who urged hardliners in the government to cooperate with Solidarity. He was still in his early thirties at this point, and became somewhat of a minor celebrity as the handsome, athletic rebel communist who wore fashionable suits and appeared to be a fan of the tanning beds that were becoming newly popular in Western Europe.
In early 1989 Kwaśniewski participated in a momentous event in Poland's postwar history, the two-month-long talks that resulted in the Round Table Agreement in April of that year. Initiated by the PZPR, the meetings brought together leaders of Solidarity and other opposition movements in an effort to defuse growing social unrest, and Kwaśniewski served on the task group that negotiated tradeunion pluralism, or the recognition of new labor groups not allied with the PZPR. The Agreement also ended with a decision to divide political power between the Communist government and opposition parties—a historic moment, not just for Poland but across the Eastern bloc. Previous, tentative steps toward democracy in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia had nearly always been met with a swift, military-force response from Moscow, but by now the Soviet Union was undergoing its own wave of political, social, and economic reform.
Elections were held in June of 1989, and the now formally established political party called Solidarity won several seats in the Sejm, or lower house of Polish parliament. Early the next year, the PZPR was dissolved in favor of a new leftist political group, Social Democracy of the Polish Republic, which Kwaśniewski had co-founded. He was the overwhelming choice to chair it, elected by more than two-thirds of the 1,500 delegates at its founding convention. Later in 1990, in the first direct presidential elections in Polish history, Wałęsa became the country's president.
Kwaśniewski still headed the Social Democracy Party, and was instrumental in the formation of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) in 1991, a coalition of leftist parties. Later that year he became an SLD candidate in parliamentary elections, representing the district of Warsaw, and polled the highest number of votes of any candidate. The SLD also did well in the 1993 Sejm elections, and after his re-election that year Kwaśniewski advanced to one of the most important posts in the National Assembly, as the combined Sejm and Senate are known: he was voted chair of the constitutional committee, a select group chosen to draft the country's first post-communist constitution.
Wałęsa and Solidarity experienced a number of difficult issues during this first part of the decade, much of it related to Poland's painful transition from a planned to a free market economy. As his term neared the end of its five-year mark and new presidential elections loomed, Kwaśniewski emerged as the best candidate to beat the incumbent. During the campaign he pledged to improve Poland's troubled economic situation, while Wałęsa played up the fact that his opponent had once been a Communist Party member.
In those 1995 presidential elections, Kwaśniewski ran as the SLD candidate and finished with a 2 percent lead over Wałęsa. A runoff election was scheduled, and the tanned, athletic Kwaśniewski scored a dramatic media victory over the Nobel Peace Prize-winning former electrician in a televised debate. "The portly and greying Mr. Wałęsa," noted a report in the Economist about the event, "with his convoluted speech and working-class manners, appeared by comparison to be a relic of a bygone era."
Kwaśniewski won the runoff election, and scored the most impressive achievement of his first term in 1997 with the adoption of Poland's constitution. He also became an ardent supporter of Poland's bid to join the European Union, and when the country became one of three new member nations of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, created in 1949 to address the threat of a Soviet takeover of the rest of Europe), he termed it "the most important moment in our history," according to a New York Times report by Steven Erlanger.
In October of 2000 Kwaśniewski faced Wałęsa once again in the presidential elections, along with a crowded field of ten other challengers. This time, Kwaśniewski received a resounding majority of votes—taking 53.9 percent over that of the second-place finisher at 17.3 percent, with Wałęsa finishing seventh. The most significant milestone of Kwaśniewski's second term in office came on May 2, 2004, when Poland became one of 10 new member nations of the European Union. Inside Poland, he maintained the relative political stability of his first term, overseeing alliances and smoothing over the ideological differences that had made the first years of Poland's democracy so contentious when Wałęsa was president. In late 2004, Kwaśniewski was tapped to lead talks to resolve the crisis in neighboring Ukraine, when a democratically elected presidential candidate, Viktor Yushchenko (born 1954), was prevented from taking office. Overall, Kwaśniewski won high marks in his decade as president for his impartiality and commitment to moving Poland forward in the global community.
The Polish constitution limits the president to two terms, and Kwaśniewski stepped down gracefully after the December 2005 elections. His successor was Lech Kaczyński (born 1949) of the conservative Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice) Party. Kwaśniewski has been married since 1979 to a lawyer, the former Jolanta Konty, who proved so popular as First Lady that some in Poland asserted she should run for office herself. They have a grown daughter, psychologist Aleksandra Kwaśniewska, born the same year that martial law went into effect in Poland. In 2006 she was a finalist on Taniec z Gwiazdami , the Polish version of Dancing with the Stars . Her father, meanwhile, had returned to the United States once again, this time as a visiting foreign policy scholar at Georgetown University.
Economist , November 25, 1995; January 9, 1999.
New York Times , November 12, 1995; November 21, 1995; November 29, 1995; March 12, 1999.
Time , December 4, 1995.
Times (London, England), January 30, 1990; July 11, 2001; November 10, 2005.