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Bogdan Borusewicz is the Speaker (Marshal) of the Polish Senate. He was born in 1949 and studied history at the Catholic University of Lublin.

Under communism, Borusewicz was an ardent democracy activist. His career as a dissident started in high school, when he was arrested in 1968 for engaging with the opposition movement. In the 1970s, Borusewicz became involved with the Workers’ Defense Committee (KOR) and the Free Trade Unions of the Coast, workers’ advocacy organizations that preceded the Solidarity independent trade union.

Borusewicz rose to prominence as the principal organizer of Gdansk’s Lenin Shipyard strike in August 1980, which led to the formation of Solidarity. When martial law was declared in 1981, Borusewicz went into hiding for four years. During this time, he married fellow freedom activist Alina Pienkowska in secret. When Alina gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Kinga, Borusewicz attended her baptism in disguise for fear of being arrested by authorities. He was later arrested in 1986 and imprisoned for two years. After receiving amnesty, Borusewicz renewed his activism, serving as deputy leader of Solidarity in 1990 and 1991. He was elected to the lower house of parliament in 1990, where he served until 2001.

In 2005, he was elected to the Senate, where he was chosen by his colleagues to serve as Speaker (Marshal). In 2010, he served briefly as the interim Polish President after President Lech Kaczynski died. 

But yet this freedom out in the world is a contagious thing. You see: The Arabs and North Africa have rebelled. It seemed that the Arabs did not feel this need, you know, for freedom and democracy. You know, that is what the West was saying about us [Poland], the French and the Germans said: “What do the Poles want, they can’t understand that, because they have not lived in a free or democratic country.” And afterwards what I heard about the Arabs of North Africa were very similar assessments. But it turns out they as well want freedom and democracy and they have demonstrated it. So then freedom and the desire for freedom and democracy is a contagious thing.

I traveled to Burma recently where very similar transformations are taking place as in Poland. This is a country that will undoubtedly be making strides toward democracy and it will be pressing ever faster toward democracy. Despite the fact that the dictatorship of the military there was horrendous, was much more horrific than we ever had; it was bloodier. So it seems to me, and I believe this, that we in Central Europe have created in a second wave, which rolled over the world, a new wave of freedom.

The first wave was the 1970s and South America where military dictatorships were toppling one after the other, as in Spain, earlier in Portugal. And in the 1980s this breath of, you know the second wave of freedom, which rolled over east central Europe, and it began with us – the Poles were the ones who began it. And right now, over these last 2 years I am observing dictatorships over the world winding down. It seemed that such places like the Arab countries, the breath of freedom would be an impossibility, that democratic movements would be an impossibility.

It turns out that we were wrong. So what we are observing in the Arab countries is this third wave – after the 1970s in Latin America with the fall of their military dictatorships, after what happened in the 1980s in Central Europe, now it is the turn of the dictatorships of North Africa. So there are few places, there are just enclaves in the world, which are still dictatorships. But their turn will come as well.

Of course, it’s not going to be that someone comes in from the outside and liberates them. This, the people will have to do themselves. No one from the outside will come in and liberate them. At most, they can come in later and help a little with feeding them, because all these countries which continue as dictatorships are in horrendous economic shape. But for those dictators, their turn will come as well, so I am optimistic. 

Poland is a central European country bordered by the Baltic Sea, Belarus, Ukraine, Germany, Russia, Lithuania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Poland has a population of 38 million people; nearly 90 percent are Roman Catholic.

Poles struggled against foreign dominance from the 14th century and the modern Polish state is less than one hundred years old. Polish borders expanded and contracted through a series of partitions in the 18th century. After a brief period of independence and parliamentary democracy from 1918 to 1939, World War II brought occupation by Nazi Germany and the near annihilation of the Jewish population. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Poland’s Jewish population went from over 3 million in 1933 to 45,000 in 1950.

After the war, Poland became a Soviet satellite state and a communist system was imposed. Farms were collectivized, basic freedoms curtailed, and a culture of fear developed under a Stalinist regime. The 1960s brought greater prosperity and some liberalization. Labor protests in the early 1970s tested the communist government’s resolve and prompted modest reforms.

In 1978, Polish Archbishop and Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian to hold the position since the 16th century. The pope’s triumphant return to Poland in 1979 saw massive outpourings of public support, shaking the foundations of the government and inspiring the opposition to press for peaceful change.

In 1980, shipbuilders in the seaport city of Gdansk united to confront the government. Their calls for greater political liberties and improved working conditions developed into the Solidarity movement. Solidarity’s leader, Lech Walesa, became the movement’s voice. Protests and unrest spread throughout the country and the communists replaced their leadership. General Wojciech Jaruzelski became prime minister and declared martial law on December 13, 1981. Solidarity was outlawed and Walesa and other Solidarity leaders were imprisoned.

While martial law was lifted in 1983, Poland continued to stagnate. Mikhail Gorbachev’s elevation to leadership of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985 brought new pressures for reform in Poland. A failing economy and continued repression incited workers to a new wave of strikes in 1988. A desperate regime agreed to legalize Solidarity and conduct semi-free elections. In the 1989 parliamentary elections, Solidarity won 99 of the 100 Senate seats and 160 of the 161 lower house seats they were allowed to contest. Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a Solidarity leader, became Poland’s first non-communist prime minister in over four decades. In 1990, Lech Walesa was elected president with 74 percent of the vote. While Solidarity splintered as Poland democratized, a coalition government of anti-communist parties won fully free parliamentary elections in 1991.

Poland transitioned to a market economy and applied for integration into western institutions. Economic dislocation returned the former communists, now social democrats, to power in 1993. Free elections and peaceful transitions in the following decades solidified Poland’s multi-party democratic system. Reforms eventually led to a more robust economy and Poland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999 and the European Union in 2004.

In Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2013, Poland earned the status “Free,” (as it has since 1990) receiving the best possible rankings in the categories Political Rights and Civil Liberties. 

More on this theme from Bogdan Borusewicz

Bogdan Borusewicz: A Global Desire for Freedom “The desire for freedom and democracy is a contagious thing.”