Lech Wałęsa (IPA: (pronounced Lehh Va-WEN-sa); born September 29, 1943) is a Polish politician and a former trade union and human rights activist. He co-founded Solidarity (Solidarność), the Soviet bloc's first independent trade union, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, and served as President of Poland from 1990 to 1995 (succeeded by Aleksander Kwaśniewski).
In 1976, Wałęsa lost his job in Gdańsk Shipyard.
In June 1978 he joined the illegal underground Free Trade Unions of the Coast (Wolne Związki Zawodowe Wybrzeża), organized by Bogdan Borusewicz, Andrzej Gwiazda, Krzysztof Wyszkowski, Lech Kaczyński, Anna Walentynowicz, Antoni Sokołowski, and others.
On August 14, 1980, after the beginning of an occupational strike in the Lenin Shipyard of Gdańsk, Wałęsa became the leader of this strike. The strike was spontaneously followed by similar strikes, first in Gdańsk, and then across Poland.
In September of that year, the Communist government signed an agreement with the Strike Coordination Committee to allow legal organization, but not actual free trade unions. The Strike Coordination Committee legalized itself into National Coordination Committee of Solidarność Free Trade Union, and Wałęsa was chosen as a chairman of this Committee. Solidarność is also known as Solidarity.
Wałęsa kept this position until December 13, 1981, when he was arrested. General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared a state of martial law on December 13. Wałęsa was interned for 11 months in south-eastern Poland near the Soviet border until November 14, 1982.
In 1983, he applied to come back to Gdańsk Shipyard as a simple electrician. The year 1983 also saw Wałęsa being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He was unable to receive the prize himself, fearing that the government would not let him back in. His wife, Danuta Wałęsa, received the prize in his place.
From 1987 to 1990 Wałęsa organized and led, the "half-illegal" Temporary Executive Committee of Solidarity Trade Union. In 1988 Wałęsa organized an occupational strike in Gdańsk Shipyard, demanding only the re-legalisation of the Solidarity Trade Union. After eighty days the government agreed to enter into talks in September. Wałęsa was an informal leader of the "non-governmental" side during the talks. During the talks the government signed an agreement to re-establish the Solidarity Trade Union and to organize "half-free" elections to the Polish parliament.
In 1989, Wałęsa organized and led the Citizenship Committee of the Chairman of Solidarity Trade Union. Formally, it was just an advisory body, but, practically, it was a kind of a political party, which won parliament elections in 1989 (the Opposition took all seats in the Sejm that were subject of free elections and all but one seats in the newly re-established senate; according to the Round Table agreements only members of the Communist Party and its allies could stand for the remaining 64% of seats in the Sejm).
While technically just a Chairman of Solidarity Trade Union at the time, Wałęsa played a key role in Polish politics. At the end of 1989, he persuaded leaders from formerly communist ally parties to form a non-communist coalition government, which was the first non-communist government in the Soviet Bloc's sphere of influence. After that agreement the parliament chose Tadeusz Mazowiecki for prime minister of Poland. Poland, while still a communist country in theory, started to change its economy to a market-based system.
He was the first non-head of state to address a joint meeting of the US Congress on November 15 1989 . He was also the first recipient of the Liberty Medal on July 4, 1989 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. In his acceptance speech, he said, "Liberty is not only a right, but also our common responsibility and duty.
Documents coming to light as of June 2008 allege that Wałęsa had been a collaborator of the communist secret police (Polish: tajny wspólpracownik) pseudonym "Bolek", well prior to the formation of Solidarity. This would suggest a degree of calculation on his part as well as the part of the then government in the context of all the events of the formation of Solidarity and subsequent to it. Walesa himself denies any collaboration and there is no substantiation of these rumors. On August 11, 2000, The Apellate Court of Warsaw, V Wydział Lustracyjny, declared that Wałęsa's Lustration Statement is a true one, meaning he did not collaborate with the communist regime (see the justification of the court's decision). Walesa has steadfastly denied being agent "Bolek."
Wałęsa lost the 1995 presidential election. This was by less than 1%, a margin which many people considered would have been comfortably overturned if the revelation had come earlier that his opponent had falsely claimed to have a university degree - and used Wałęsa's lack of higher education as a political weapon. Calls for a new election were dismissed.
In the early 1990s, Wałęsa had proposed a "NATO-bis" as a subregional security framework. The concept, though supported by Polish right-wing as well as populist movements, and by politicians such as Leszek Moczulski, gained little support abroad, as Poland's neighbors, some of whom had only recently regained independence, tended to perceive the concept as imperialistic.
After that, he claimed to go to "political retirement", but he was still active, trying to establish his own political party. In 1997 Wałęsa supported and helped to organize a new party called Solidarity Electoral Action (Akcja Wyborcza Solidarność) which won the parliamentary elections. However, his support was of minor significance and Wałęsa held a very low position in this party. The real leader of the party and its main organizer was a new Solidarity Trade Union leader, Marian Krzaklewski.
Wałęsa again stood for the presidential election in 2000, but he received only 1% of votes. Many Polish people were dissatisfied with the fact that once again he wanted to regain his political power. After that, Wałęsa again claimed his political retirement. From that time on, he has been lecturing on the history and politics of Central Europe at various foreign universities. Although not politically engaged anymore, Wałęsa is still publicly addressed as President.
In May 10, 2004, the Gdańsk international airport has been officially renamed to Gdańsk Lech Wałęsa Airport to commemorate the famous Gdańsk citizen. His signature has been incorporated into the airport's logo. There was some controversy as to whether the name should be spelled Lech Walesa (without diacritics, but better recognizable in the world) or Lech Wałęsa (with Polish letters, but difficult to write and pronounce for foreigners, the closest English phonetic approximation being "Vawensa"). A month later, Wałęsa went to the U.S., representing Poland at the state funeral of Ronald Reagan. In April 25 2007 Wałęsa represented the Polish government at the funeral of Boris Yeltsin, former President of the Russian Federation.
In 2001 Wałęsa was awarded the Pacem in Terris Award. It was named after a 1963 encyclical letter by Pope John XXIII that calls upon all people of good will to secure peace among all nations. Pacem in Terris is Latin for 'Peace on Earth.'
In 2002, Wałęsa represented Europe in carrying the Olympic flag at the opening ceremonies of the XIX Olympic Winter Games, in Salt Lake City, joining Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Africa), John Glenn (The Americas), Kazuyoshi Funaki (Asia), Cathy Freeman (Oceania), Jean-Michel Cousteau (Environment), Jean-Claude Killy (Sport), and Steven Spielberg (Culture)
During Poland's 2005 presidential elections, Wałęsa supported Donald Tusk, saying that he was the best of all the candidates. Simultaneously, he expressed support for Poland's newly-formed Democratic Party - demokraci.pl in the parliamentary elections of the same year.
In 2006, Wałęsa quit Solidarity. In an Associated Press report, he cited differences with the party's support of the Law and Justice party, and the rise to power of Lech and Jarosław Kaczyński. On October 11, 2006, Wałęsa was the keynote speaker at the launch of the "International Human Solidarity Day" proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2005 at the United Nations Trusteeship Council. The Day, to be observed on 20 December, aims to raise awareness of the importance of solidarity for advancing the international development agenda, especially for poverty eradication. In the Millennium Declaration, Heads of State and Government identified solidarity as one of the “fundamental values… essential to international relations”. Mr. Wałęsa received a long applause from the audience after delivering an emotional speech on the impact of the day in human relationships and how his own movement "Solidarność" succeeded in getting support from people from various countries.
In January 2007, Wałęsa spoke at the event "Towards a Global Forum on New Democracies in Taiwan in support of democracy and peace along with other prominent world leaders and President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan.
On May 30, 2007, Wałęsa received the title Defender of the Faith, Defensor Fidei, from the Italian Cultural Association.