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Polish Icon, Lech Walesa Goes to Court to Clear His Name

Modern-day Poland's most iconic political figure, Lech Walesa, has gone to court to clear his name of accusations he once spied for the communist secret service.

To most of the world, Lech Walesa is known as a spunky and courageous freedom fighter whose Solidarity trade union helped bring about the collapse of communism in Poland and in Eastern Europe, and helped eventually to bring down the Soviet Union. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, and for five years served as independent Poland's first president.

But 20 years after the end of communist rule, Lech Walesa is fighting again - this time to protect his reputation.

Mr. Walesa is suing Poland's current president, Lech Kaczynski, for libel in a civil suit that began in November. He is demanding about $34,000 in damages for accusations he collaborated with the communist secret service back in the 1970s. Neither man has attended the court sessions in person.

The accusations before the court stem from comments made by President Kaczynski during an interview with Polish television last year, in which he accused Mr. Walesa of having been a communist agent, code-named "Bolek."

During the interview, President Kaczynski was pressed to state whether he thought Lech Walesa was "Bolek". Finally he said "yes."

The charges are not new. They first surfaced in 1992 when Poland's new government was delving into the files of the communist-era secret service. They found a list of agents, and Lech Walesa's name was on it. But it was common for the secret service to falsify such documents, and Polish courts have since cleared the former president of any wrong-doing. Many others who had been implicated were cleared as well.

But such accusations against Mr. Walesa have resurfaced from time to time. A controversial book published in 2008 by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, a government-affiliated research institute, concluded that he had been a collaborator.

Mr. Walesa's supporters say it is part of a smear campaign by political rivals. In turn, Mr. Walesa has often used his favorable court ruling as a weapon against his enemies, says political scientist Olgierd Annusewicz of Warsaw University.

"Every time anybody from this, let us say, right wing of the Polish right says that Walesa was an agent of the secret service, Walesa sues him," said Olgierd Annusewicz. "So it is not the first time Walesa is suing somebody. He won all previous trials."

Even though Mr. Walesa and Mr. Kaczynski were once allies in the fight against communism, they had a falling out in the early 1990s when both served in government. They have been bitter rivals ever since.

But in interviews with the Polish press, Mr. Walesa has always insisted, he is merely upholding the law.

He says that when President Kaczynski took office, he swore not to break the law, but the Polish president is making illegal accusations. They are illegal, he says because a Polish court already ruled that he, Walesa, was not a collaborator. Mr. Walesa calls on Poles to pressure their president to apologize for the remark. A president, he says, should not break the law.

But as political analyst Annusewicz points out, there is more at stake than Mr. Walesa is saying.

"Walesa suing everybody is defending not only himself as a person, not only himself as a politician, but most of all he is defending the myth [reputation] of Solidarity, and the myth of Poland, the myth of opposition and the myth of democracy in Poland," he said.

According to opinion polls, Lech Walesa remains very popular in Poland. But not everybody believes Mr. Walesa should be involved in today's politics, or that he should be using the court system so aggressively to safeguard his reputation.

As one Polish man says, Mr. Walesa is already a great national hero and should be content to settle for that, leaving the problems of contemporary politics to others. He adds that, as for President Kaczynski's accusations, Mr. Walesa should be able to just brush them aside.

The court case is continuing in January.