Interview with Lech Wałęsa, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former President of Poland

Monday 27 November 2023

Former Polish President and Solidarity founding leader Lech Wałęsa speaks to workers during a strike at the Gdańsk shipyard on 8 August 1980.

Lech Wałęsa was instrumental in Poland's transition from communism to democracy. In this exclusive interview with the IBA’s Director of Content James Lewis, Wałęsa shares his views on the current political climate, the insurgence of demagogues and the need for strong moral leadership to guide Europe through these challenging times.

James Lewis (JL): I’m speaking to Lech Wałęsa, former President of Poland, leader of the Solidarity movement that helped bring the end to the communist rule and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. President Wałęsa, thanks for making the time to talk to us.

Lech Wałęsa (LW): You’re welcome. Before we start, I’d like to say a few words. I built and led a great revolution called Solidarity. Thanks to the co-operation of presidents, prime ministers and trade unions, we managed to achieve a great thing. We managed to dissolve the Soviet Union in a peaceful way. We removed the occupying armies that were stationed in different countries since the Second World War. We helped Germany to reunite. We did this to remove the bad causes and to build a new Europe and the new world.

JL: Yes, you are well known as the leader of Solidarity, and for your role in the ending of communism, you were the first non-communist president for 40 years. It was a time of great optimism. Given that your role was so important, and you negotiated the withdrawal of Soviet troops at that time, I want to get your your views on what Russia is doing in Ukraine and what it's been doing over the last two years?

LW: Today, Putin has made a grave error. He has united the world against Russia. Even if we assist Ukraine in defeating Russia today, if we devastate Russia, it will resurge in 20 years and pose a threat to our grandchildren. This is solely because we are not assisting Russia in transforming its political system. It was never about Stalin or Putin – it was always about the Russian political system.

Even if we win against Russia today, Russia will rise again in 20 years and threaten democracy

If political leaders were restricted to two five-year terms, they would never be able to threaten the world. After serving one term, a leader should take a break and then run again. However, if they continue to be elected, it creates potential problems and threats to European democracy. If someone spends their entire life as a career politician or member of parliament, they gradually lose accountability, and it cannot and should not function in this manner. It is unsustainable.

When I was President, I proposed to restructure Russia’s political system. I said: let's do some reckoning with Russia. But the West said, no that was Stalin, that was Brezhnev. It’s not the system, it’s their leaders. But Gorbachev, he is a nice guy. Let's leave him in peace. And I was telling the West, he's tricking you. He's a wise man, he is my friend, but he is a Russian patriot. He's doing everything he can to help Russia, not us. He wants to save as much of Russia as possible, he wants to rebuild Russia and wants to subjugate the West through resources.

REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

Maciej Jaszczyński (translator), Lech Walesa and James Lewis

Gorbachev did not want to change the political system in Russia, because in this system, another Putin or Stalin can appear and rebuild the Soviet Union. This is why we are threatened with the same situation right now in Russia because their political system is built for this type of leadership. Even if we win against Russia today, Russia will rise again in 20 years and threaten democracy. To prevent this, we need to change their political system.

We must start by convincing all Russians. Explaining to them that you will die tomorrow because Putin will incorporate you into the army. Yesterday your neighbour died, today your family may die. Do you want to keep on dying? We must show Russians that we are not enemies of Russia, we want them to live. We just do not want Russia to threaten the world.

JL: There's a danger the people in the West take the benefits of living under the rule of law for granted. Please give us a sense of what it was like living under communism and what that meant and what the profound impact it had on people's lives was.

LW: A lot of young people in the West support communism. It’s because communism has beautiful slogans. It promises a utopian society based on an equitable world. That can seem nice to people. But those young people don't know that it is impossible to implement. When you start implementing communism, then problems arise. Theoretically it is right. But in practice it's impossible and it causes a lot of problems. We tried it in Poland for about 50 years and we could not implement it even though it sounded good. So, let's not go in this direction. We must support democracy and capitalism.

Our generation possesses the potential to refine and enhance democratic principles, adapting them to the demands of modern times. The capitalism of the past, centred around individual countries and states, fostered unhealthy competition often marred by dishonesty. This outdated model must be replaced with a continental and globalised approach, recognising that technological advancements transcend national boundaries.

This new generation faces the imperative of transitioning to a continental-scale governance structure. The question is not whether to pursue this transformation but how to effectively implement it. By embracing continental governance and refining democratic and capitalist principles, we can forge a brighter future for generations to come.

And in this way through solidarity, we managed to win against Soviet Union communism without firing a single shot

JL: I want to ask a couple more questions about your time of living under communism. One is about how hard it was living under constant surveillance and how you dealt with being bugged at your workplace and at home?

LW: I got used to it over the years. Today I'm in a similar situation, but for different reasons. I'm still being guarded, but for my protection. So, it’s quite easy to deal with because, I’m used to it. However, it was a system that sought to control every aspect of our lives, making existence incredibly difficult and problematic. It was unbearable. In Poland, we went through that and we want to prevent it from happening again.

JL: It's been anticipated in part when you're talking about important aspects of democracy, for example protests. When you were protesting at the Gdańsk shipyards, that was illegal. How important is the right to protest?

LW: Protesting is very important. In the ‘60s and in the ’70s, we started striking, but the government won against us. But in the ’80s, we came up with the idea to do everything in solidarity together. With this we had to organise our country as well.

We had to ask other European countries who shared our values to support us. However, this was not enough to defeat communism. So, we had to ask different countries, such as the United States and Brazil. And in this way, through solidarity, we managed to win against Soviet Union communism without firing a single shot, which is the beauty of protesting. Even the Soviet Union was happy about it. I was a great hero in Poland and in Russia because everyone gained from peaceful protesting.

JL: I wanted to ask you about the EU and Poland's relationship. And you've supported Poland's entry to the EU, but the relationship's not been good since the election of the National Law and Justice Party in 2015. They've limited judicial independence and media freedom. You must be very disappointed by this.

LW: I've been talking about this every day. Look at Poland. We took the elections lightly and allowed populist demagogues to seize power. They inflicted great harm upon us and sought to dismantle the EU. It felt like a hopeless situation as the demagogues gained control of all the power and the press.

So, I urge you, don't make the same mistakes we did. We were once a successful nation, but we made a poor choice and suffered the consequences. The previous political party insulted entire countries, and now we must make amends.

Let Poland's example serve as a warning to the world. Everyone, go out and vote. Scrutinise the candidates carefully. There are many Trumps lurking around the corner.

But there is hope. The Polish people have awakened. We recognised the dire situation, and almost everyone turned out to vote. We ousted that party from power! It's a remarkable achievement.

JL: How hopeful are you that the recent election result will set Poland back on a path that supports democracy and the rule of law?

LW: You know, I have no doubts. Democracy is a successful system. But there are incidents in democracy, even in the US, like Donald Trump. So, we have to encourage people to guard democracy because you can destroy it quite quickly.

We must make sure we can deal with demagoguing, populism and lies of politicians on a larger scale. We have to remember that until the end of the 20th century, nations had a conscience. They had some sort of religion or some God in their conscience – some moral leadership. It was present in their ideology. Now we have dealt with communism and the Soviet Union has fallen, the question persists: how can we keep nations in check that do not seem afraid of anything? That have no brakes?

JL: I’m getting a sense that there's a strong vision and it’s very clear how that vision can be achieved. But there's a lack of moral leadership and a lack of political leadership at the moment. Where do you see that political and moral leadership coming from?

Look at Poland. We took the elections lightly and allowed populist demagogues to seize power

LW: In the past, we often engaged in deception and mistrust. We had to win each other over through persuasion and build trust from the ground up. Today, we are entering the age of discussion, a time for open dialogue and collaboration. The world is alive with conversations about how to shape the future, yet no single nation stands as a beacon of leadership. Demagogues and populists have seized the reins, steering us down uncertain paths.

This transition between eras demands clarity and foresight. As I mentioned, we are standing at the precipice of a new age, which I call the age of discussion. What does the future hold for our world? The pandemic has made it clear that individual countries cannot stand alone. The next global crisis will undoubtedly surpass the devastation of the pandemic, making international cooperation more essential than ever. We must prepare ourselves to embrace this new era, and to do so, we need strong leadership.

It is time to engage in meaningful discussions about how to improve Europe. What unifying force can bring together nations in a divided continent? What shared values can serve as the foundation for a united Europe? We must identify the unique strengths of each European country and leverage them for collective prosperity. Italy, with its rich cultural heritage, can specialise in tourism. Poland, situated at the heart of Europe, can enhance its transportation infrastructure. France, renowned for its vineyards, can become a global centre for wine production. By embracing these specialisations, we can create a vibrant and diverse Europe. One that thrives in the face of globalisation and technological advancements.

This is an abridged version of Lech Wałęsa’s interview at the IBA Annual Conference in Paris. The filmed interview can be viewed in full here.