FOREIGN MINISTER GEREMEK
February 16, 1998
Later this year, the member nations of NATO will officially welcome Poland to the alliance. Charles Krause speaks with Bronislaw Geremek, Poland's foreign minister, about his country's long road from a Russian-dominated communist system to a pro-West democractic government.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Polandís foreign minister, Bronislaw Geremek, was in Washington meeting with the president and also congressional leaders, trying to win approval for Polandís membership in NATO. A 65-year-old historian, Geremek became foreign minister just last fall, but heís been at the center of political life in Poland for nearly two decades.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
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The rise of Solidarity.
In 1980, Geremek became an adviser to Lech Walesa in the early years of the Solidarity Trade Union movement. In late 1981, he and others in Solidarity were jailed after Polandís communist government declared martial law. But even underground Solidarity remained a potent political force, forcing the Communists in 1989 to enter into so-called "round table" talks with Walesa. Geremek became a key Solidarity negotiator.
As a result of the talks in June of 1989, the first free parliamentary elections in any of the communist-controlled Central European countries were held in Poland. Solidarity won those elections overwhelmingly, sending shock waves from Warsaw to Moscow. A month after the elections the NewsHour first interviewed Geremek at Solidarity headquarters. At the time there was much speculation whether the Communists would honor the election results, or reimpose martial law.
BRONISLAW GEREMEK: During the round table we obtained this kind of common philosophy that the real choice that we have in Poland is to change the system through civil war and revolution, or through a slow evolution, and we decided that the slow evolution was acceptable for them and for us, for the Communist Party and for this Polish society.
CHARLES KRAUSE: History would, in fact, prove Geremek right. In the fall of 1989, Solidarity took effective control of Polandís government. And just two months later the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. The Cold War was over, but the transition to democracy and free markets was just beginning. In Poland, Walesa was elected president in 1990, but Geremek was not included in the cabinet, in part of because of anti-Semitic attacks that seemed to preclude his elevation from parliament to a higher post. But last fall a coalition of non-Communist parties, many of them affiliated with the original Solidarity movement, regained control of the parliament and named Geremek foreign minister. In that capacity his most important objective is to secure Polandís membership in NATO, a policy supported by all of Polandís political factions, including the former Communists led by Polandís current president, Aleksander Kwasniewski. Along with Hungary and the Czech Republic, Poland was formally invited to join NATO last summer in Madrid. The treaty adding the new members must now be ratified by the U.S. Senate and by the parliaments of other alliance countries. I interviewed Geremek at the Polish embassy in Washington.
The Polish experience.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Mr. Geremek, itís good to see you again. Tell me, looking back at that election nine years ago, did you think at that time that was what happening in Poland would have such an enormous impact, not only in Poland but in the rest of Central Europe?
BRONISLAW GEREMEK, Foreign Minister, Poland: The politician should answer it that simply that he knew it very well, unless he be honest--I couldnít imagine that this evolution will be so rapid and that the Polish experience will matter so much for other countries in the region. For the first time the Communist regime appeared a mass phenomenon, resistant to the totalitarian regime, no more dissidents marginal, but the civil society. That was the essence of the Solidarity movement, and I think that the system--and I mean the Soviet Union, the Soviet leadership--had to accept this evolution we have.
CHARLES KRAUSE: You have talked about Polandís normalcy of becoming a democratic country, but there have been attacks on you and others of Jewish descent in Poland. How significant is anti-Semitism in your country, and why does it still exist?
BRONISLAW GEREMEK: I have very often to answer such questions, and they are dramatic. Being in Poland I will always say that we have to fight against anti-Semitism, but I cannot accept the stereotype, and I had a very simple argument, you know. I was attacked. But when you see the man who is a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto becoming foreign minister of Poland, how one day to speak in the Polish anti-Semitism?
Is Cuba on the same track as Poland was in the 1980s?
CHARLES KRAUSE: Iíve just come from Cuba, and, as you know, the pope was there recently, and there were many people talking about the parallels between Cuba and Poland, some saying there are parallels, some saying there are not. To what extent was the pope instrumental in changing or influencing events in Poland?
BRONISLAW GEREMEK: I had the feeling that without the pope, without the Polish pope, the evolution of Poland would be unimaginable. One cannot see Solidarity movement and in 1980-81, the resistance of the civil society to the introduction of the martial law without the presence of the Polish pope and Vatican. In 1979, I came back from the U.S., from Washington, and I had seen the impact of the popeís visit to the Polish society. Something changed. It wasnít the political phenomenon. It was something deeper, and when I watched on the TV screen the last popeís visit to Cuba, I had the feeling to see something deja vu, something which I had seen 20 years ago, and I suppose that in the history one cannot see simple repetitions. Iím not sure what will be the impact of the popeís visit to Cuba, but I am absolutely sure seeing what happened in Cuba that something will change.
CHARLES KRAUSE: I understand that you were in the Vatican just a few days ago, and you actually spoke with the pope about his trip to Cuba. What did he say? Did he feel it was a success?
BRONISLAW GEREMEK: I cannot say what the pope felt to me, but I can say what was my impression when I said to John Paul II that I had such a feeling that it was a repetition of something which I have seen, I had the feeling that that was also a message of the pope to his Polish visitor, and the pope was very happy in Cuba, because that was one of the last pieces of the Communist regime in the framework of the Christian civilization, and I had the feeling that the Pope hopes that something will change, and thatís my feeling and my opinion, maybe with the participation of Fidel Castro.
Poland joining NATO: "Itís in the interest of American taxpayers."
CHARLES KRAUSE: Letís turn now to the reason youíre in Washington, which is the NATO expansion. Why is that important for Poland? Why does your country want to join NATO?
BRONISLAW GEREMEK: The answer to your question--I should change the language. I am no more historian intellectual involved in the resistance movement but Iím a politician, member of the government and in charge of the foreign policy. But I see a very simple bridge between these two roles played by me. I have the feeling that if I am involved in politics, itís not because of the attraction of power, because I want to see my country in-rooted, anchored in western civilization, in the good security lives and I have the feeling that we owe to America this revival of Polish attachment to the West and to say very simply we owe our freedom to the United States. And it is in the logic of this American commitment to freedom and origin to accept now Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, NATO. We are bringing to NATO something very important--lesson of stability, political stability economic transformation, a very dynamic economy--economic--for the last five, six years--some 6 percent of economic growth--GDP. So we are bringing our political will--the attachment to spiritual values and also the normalized state, a stable state--itís in the interest of American taxpayers--interests of United States.
CHARLES KRAUSE: All right. Just playing devilís advocate, there are many people in Washington who wonder if by bringing in Poland and Hungary and the Czech Republic Europe isnít being re-divided yet again--how do you respond to that argument?
BRONISLAW GEREMEK: I think that there are two questions in this very important issue--we wouldnít like to see enlargement of NATO as a factor of division, and so my first foreign visit was to Ukraine, to Lithuania--after that to Romania and Bulgaria because I had the feeling that we have to explain to these countries that itís in their interest also if the Madrid decision will be realized; if Poland will become member of NATO, their feeling of security could be stronger, and Iím very happy that I was well understood. But the second question concerns Russia. Thatís a very different question. I had the feeling that Russia was unable to accept enlargement of NATO because that was a factor of frustration to this former superpower. Itís a question of national frustration, but I had the feeling that Russia is at the crossroads. Russia can become a market democracy, can become enormous democratic country, but under one condition, that Russia will cancel forever its imperial past. These countries, and Poland first of all is creating a temptation for Russia, a temptation to rebuild the empire, and itís better for Russia to see a stabilization of the region and to see Poland as member of western--the western alliance. I donít think that itís creating problems for Russia. Itís rather creating conditions for a normal democratic evolution.
CHARLES KRAUSE: A last question. You have lived through the last 65 years of your countryís history, tragic years in many ways, although now much more hopeful than perhaps just a few years ago. Do you think that by joining NATO Polandís history of being something of a football caught between Russia and Germany, the great powers on either side, will that allow your country not to repeat the history that has marked its life for so long?
BRONISLAW GEREMEK: I hope that one can change geopolitics. One cannot change geography, so Poland is between Germany and Russia, as it was during thousands of years. But the new geopolitical situation of Poland is connected with our membership in NATO. I hope that this decision will change the history of Poland. Thousand years ago at the beginning of the Polish state, Poland decided to join the western community with the Catholic Church and was only also with the western empire. In the year 2000, joining NATO, Poland can be anchored for centuries, and a good alliance and in the solidarity of civilization.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Mr. Geremek, thank you for very much for joining us.
BRONISLAW GEREMEK: Thank you.