If you want controversy in Poland then bring in General Wojciech Jaruzelski. Jaruzelski will be remembered as the man who introduced Martial Law in Poland in 1981 - which ended the stand off between the burgeoning Solidarity movement and the Communist government. The image of the dark spectacled General proclaiming Martial Law is one that remains in the collective memory in Poland and beyond. The repression of strikers and the opposition movement by the armed forces directly led to the deaths of 56 people.
President Bronisław Komorowski invited all the former Presidents and Prime Ministers from the past 20 years to a meeting of the Security Council on Wednesday, in order to advise him on December's visit of Russian President Dmitrij Miedwiediew to Poland. Jaruzelski - as the first President in post-communist Poland - was amongst the invited former heads of state and government. This has immediately caused an outcry from the conservative-right - inevitably from PiS, but also from some within PO. Jarosław Kaczyński has called the decision a disgrace and others have argued that it is disrespectful to those who fought against and suffered during Martial Law in Poland.
The invitation of Jaruzelski to the President's Palace raises a number of issues.
Firstly, and most controversially, is the historical assessment of Martial Law in Poland. The implementation of Martial Law in Poland, in December 1981, highlighted the bankruptcy of the Communist government at this time and the inbability of the party to govern in any consensual form. For this reason power was handed over to the army. This not only resulted in the repression and atomisation of the opposition movement but also ended any remaining hopes that communism could be reformed and democratised. However, the other aspect of these events, is what would have happened if Martial Law had not been called. One argument runs that if the Polish government had not implemented Martial Law at this time then the Soviet Army would almost certainly have intervened, which would have resulted in civil war. Now, as in all such historical debates, noone can be certain what would have happened if the Polish state had not acted as it did. However, what is known, is that the Polish population certainly do not agree with those who outright condemn Jaruzelski and the decision to bring in Martial Law.
The Pentor public opinion agency has run an opinion poll prior to the anniversary of the implementation of Martial Law every year since 1996. Throughout this time attitudes to this event have remained surprisingly consistent. The last opinion poll showed that 51% of society believe that the introduction of Martial Law was justified, against 30% who believe it was not. Those who believe that it was justified is higher amongst those who experienced the event. For example only 33% of those under 30 agree that it was justified against 66% of those aged between 40 and 49.
The second aspect is the role played by Jaruzelski during the negotiated ending of communism in Poland. The implementation of Martial Law showed how the system had lost its majority in society and that its power was steadily disintegrating. Once Gorbachev had given the green-light for countries within Central-Eastern Europe to leave the Eastern Bloc, then it was only a matter of time before the Polish People's Republic fell. Jaruzelski was instrumental in organising the Round Table talks with the opposition in 1989, which resulted in the open and free elections that led to the Solidarity movement taking power.
This negotiated hand-over of power was followed by the joint running of the country by a Solidarity government and President Jaruzelski for over a year. The first non-commnunist PM, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, introduced the thick-line policy that allowed those who had been involved in running the previous system to participate in public life in the new Third Republic. This meant that a section of the post-communist forces were able to reconstitute themselves, eventually leading to the creation of the SLD, which won goverment power twice during the 1990s.
It was this 'unholly alliance' (between sections of the opposition and the previous administration) that has been condemned by the conservative right and which gave rise to both PiS and PO. When in power PiS identified a network (układ) that supposedly ran through economic, political and social life. The failings of contemporary capitalism was blamed upon this układ and a campaign against the 'communist' and 'liberal' elites was waged. This was, at least temporarily, defeated once PO came into power in 2007. PO had found themsevles on the receiving end of the attacks by PiS (despite the fact that they initially supported the idea of creating a new Fourth Republic) and managed to win the support of a range of different social and political forces who feared the creeping authoritarianism of the PiS goverment.
The visit of Miedwiediew to Poland is an important step in the direction of normalisng relations between Poland and Russia, which had soured during the period of the PiS government, fuelled by the Bush administration's project of building a missile defense shield in Poland. The experience of the Smoleńsk tragedy has opened up new avenues for those hostile to Moscow to create contemporary consipiracy theories about Russian aggression against Poland. Thankfully the Polish population is generally more sobre and wise in its assessment of such events.