The revolutions of 1989 followed three different paths. In the northern tier of the region (Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany), the Communist regimes collapsed from a combination of popular protest and non-violent negotiation. In Bulgaria and Albania, the leaders of the local Communist parties essentially initiated regime change from within their own inner circles, eventually ceding power peacefully. In Romania and Yugoslavia, by contrast, regime change led to violent uprisings, massacres, and civil war. To fully understand the events of 1989, we have to examine all of these paths.
The Polish people had a long tradition of resisting the Communist government, including localized protests in 1956, 1970, and, most importantly, in 1980. That year, Polish workers, angered by consumer price increases, began striking at shipyards, factories, and mines across the country. This protest quickly developed into the independent self-governing trade union named Solidarity. Led by Lech Wałesa, an electrician who later became a politician (and ultimately president of Poland), Solidarity challenged the Communist Party’s monopoly on power from August 1980 to December 1981, when Polish Prime Minister General Wojciech Jaruzelski banned the union and imposed martial law throughout the country.
Jaruzelski’s crackdown on Solidarity held until the late 1980s when the Polish government once again faced a serious economic crisis. Again angered by significant price increases—some as high as 200 percent over several months—Solidarity’s members renewed their strike in the fall of 1988. In his public war of words with General Jaruzelski, Wałesa announced that he would be willing to open talks with the authorities at any time, but only if such talks included representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. Jaruzelski countered that the strikes must end first. Jaruzelski’s position was undermined in December 1988 when, in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Soviet leader Gorbachev announced a substantial reduction in Soviet troops throughout Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union had intervened with military force in 1953, 1956, and 1968 to support Communist regimes in East European countries, but Gorbachev essentially announced that his country would not do so again.
Unable to force the striking workers back to their jobs and lacking support from Moscow, General Jaruzelski finally agreed to what became known as the Round Table Talks, negotiations that lasted from February 6 to April 5, 1989. When the two sides emerged from these talks, they had agreed to compromise on economic issues, to the re-legalization of Solidarity, and most significantly, to elections in which parties other than the Communists would be able to field candidates.
The compromise agreement stated that two-thirds of the seats in the lower house of the Polish parliament (the Sejm) would be designated for Communist and associated parties, while the remaining third would be open to any candidate. The talks also resurrected the Polish Senate in which all 100 members of this upper house were to be freely elected. In addition, voters could cross off the name of any candidate. This meant that voters could reject Communist candidates in seats reserved for Communists. In the ensuing elections on June 4 and June 18, Solidarity candidates won 160 of the 161 seats in the Sejm that were available to them and 92 of the 100 seats of the Polish Senate. In addition, many leaders of the Communist Party failed to secure enough votes to be elected to the parliament they had controlled for four decades. Hoping to avoid a crackdown similar to the one in 1981, Wałesa persuaded his coalition to elect Jaruzelski president, thereby creating a power-sharing arrangement that secured Solidarity’s victory.
When President George H.W. Bush visited Eastern Europe during that fateful summer, he included Gdańsk, Poland, the home base of Solidarity, on his itinerary. There, before a crowd estimated at 20,000, he stood next to Wałesa and praised Poland for its achievement, for free elections, and for its dedication to liberty. (Download the full text of his remarks.)