Negotiations or just casual talks? The Polish lesson

February 28, 2014

What differs serious political negotiations from aimless conversation? In the light of latest events around the world, several lessons can be learned from the Polish experience. Zbigniew Bujak shares them in a special article for the Community of Democracies.

The Polish "Round Table" talks have fulfilled several conditions that enabled them to be seen as successful political negotiations for transition, and it is necessary to understand these fundamental conditions in order to advise Ukrainians, Belarusians, Syrians and Venezuelans how to handle their own political negotiations – how to prepare for negotiations, what to discuss, and how to conduct the conversations. 

The first condition is the transparency of the negotiations. Both plenary and thematic sessions of the round table negotiations were covered by governmental as well as oppositional media. This was the first and foremost source of public legitimacy of the negotiations. 

The transparency of the negotiations brings about the second condition: a proper choice of topics. From the very first moment, the discussion must focus on the issues that are most important for the citizens and most relevant to their situation. Only by dealing with the proper topics will both sides continue to obtain public legitimacy. 

The third important condition is proper representation; the people who conduct the conversations. It is important to have people who truly represent the variety of opiniones in the society, as well as different regions, organizations, and so on. From this derives the fourth condition – it is very important to properly identify which groups are not represented in the negotiations, and what might be the impact of their absence. 

The fifth condition regards the identity of the observer. The observer's roles are to serve as a witness to both sides' sincerity during the negotiations; to ensure negotiations are not misled by selfishness, personal interests or lack of political realism; and to confirm that none of the sides tries to conspire during the conversations. 

The sixth condition is a good choice of location and "host" for the conversations. The host should be in constant contact with the leaders and experts from both sides of the negotiations. 

As a seventh condition, it is vital to recognize, understand and evaluate the voice of the "radicals". 

We shall now provide a more detailed look at each of the conditions:


The demand for transparency was first made by organizers of the 1980 strikes in the Gdansk shipyard, and the negotiations that followed the strikes were directly and publicly transmitted by the radio of the shipyard. It was later developed by the democratic opposition, in particular, the Worker's Defense Committee (WDC), that advised us, Solidarity leaders, to act publicly and openly – it is fundamental for obtaining credibility in the public opinion and gaining the trust of other activists. "Closed door" meetings immediately raise the suspicion of the public, and allow easy manipulation by governmental authorities in order to hurt the opposition's image. This is the easiest way to create mistrust between the opposition and the citizens.

The round table talks were preceded by "good services" – unofficial arrangements with the representatives of General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who enjoyed the trust of Solidarity leaders, including Lech Walesa, and of the Primate, the head of the Catholic Church. These people took it on themselves to arrange the negotiations, the choice of topics and their location, and ensured that neither side would interfere in the choice of representatives of the other. They had full responsibility over the arrangements, and risked their personal reputation for that matter – it was up to them to make sure that the negotiations would not be superficialities that would diminish the public trust towards the opposition.  

Preparation of topics

Transparency demands proper preparation for the negotiations. You can always “chit-chat” with whomever you want about whatever topic you want, but if you know that the media is covering the conversations and transmitting it to the public, you have to speak to the point. It means that you must talk about the things that matter most for the country and for its citizens. The final outcomes of our negotiations can be easily divided into the following categories:

  1. A stand on political reforms.
  2. A stand on public policy, economy and system reforms. 
  3. A stand on political pluralism. 
  4. A report by the working group on the reform of the legal system. 
  5. A report by the working group on freedom of media. 
  6. A final protocol by the working group on local governance. 
  7. A final protocol by the working group on freedom of association. 
  8. Conclusions of the working group on education, science and technology. 
  9. A stand of the working group on youth. 
  10. A stand of the working group on housing policy. 
  11. A stand on social affairs in the countryside and further documents by the working group on agricultural affairs. 
  12. A report by the working group on mining issues. 
  13. A final protocol by the working group on health policies. 
  14. A protocol by the working group on environmental issues. 

The topics of our conversations covered all the issues that were important for the activists of the Solidarity movement  who worked the entire time on the reforms program. Every social and political problem received proper attention during the negotiations, and this kind of approach increased the public trust in the process. 


At the round table sat the most important and influential figures from both sides of the political debate. From the side of the opposition, participants represented four key stakeholders: advisers of the Solidarity movement and leaders elected in the first elections for the Solidarity Congress; leaders of independent actions and strikes during the 1980’s; leaders of independent organizations and movements that shared a common language and goal with the Solidarity movement, such as the “Rural Solidarity” movement, the Independent Students’ Association, green movements and the pacifist organization “Freedom and Peace”; and finally, representatives of the academic and cultural spheres. Each of these stakeholders presented different perspectives for the problems discussed during the negotiations.

Representation of the absent

For the organizers of the negotiations, it was important to identify which groups are not represented, and what effects their absence might bring about. From the opposition’s side, for example, four major characters were not present in the negotiations, the most significant of them being Mr. Leszek Moczulski, founder of the Confederation for Independent Poland. The public support for the Confederation was large enough such that Moczulski’s absence would undermine the legitimacy of the negotiations; however, Moczulski knew that his opinions favoring complete Polish independence from Soviet influence could not be officially voiced during the talks, as Soviet divisions surrounded Polish borders. He therefore agreed to give his silent consent to the negotiations, and patiently wait for the conduction of free elections. Indeed, two years later, his party gained representation in the parliament.
Another prominent figure who was absent from the negotiations was Mr. Bogdan Borusewicz. Borusewicz was one of the organizers of the shipyard strikes in August 1980, author of the famous “21 postulates” that were presented during the strikes, and a person with strong influence on public opinion. He refused to take part in the negotiations, but kept a neutral position and accepted the final results. 
A third person who was absent from the talks was the head of the Independent Students’ Association. His presence was crucial for us, but he refused, calling the conversations “a betrayal”. Fortunately, not all members of the Association acted so radically, and they agreed to take part in different working groups of the negotiations, a fact that sustained the legitimacy of the process among students. 

Finally, a fourth figure who did not take part in the talks was Mr. Kornel Morawiecki, who founded “Fighting Solidarity” during the martial law period in response to what he perceived to be a “soft” policy of the Solidarity movement against the regime. His radical ideology, however, had never really turned into action. Due to this fact we assumed that, despite his opposition to the talks, he would not take any concrete action to discredit them. Our assumptions turned out to be correct.


It is extremely hard for me to imagine the round table talks without the presence of a proper “witness”. In our case, it was the Catholic Church. The most important was not just the presence of this or that priest or bishop; it was the support of Pope John Paul II.
The authority of the witness is essential during the negotiations, since they abound in misunderstandings and tensions that threaten to impede their success. Time has taught us that this authority is also important for the period following the negotiations. This period is characterized by strong polarization and rivalry, and in the first elections, people who previously sat at the same side of the conversations now treat each other as enemies and accuse each other of treason and conspiracy. They try to completely forget about previous cooperation, but the public impact of such a major figure as the Pope does not allow them to do so. It forces the sides to align themselves according to the culture of dialogue, and not according to personal interests. 

Location and host

Our agreement to have the negotiations held at the Namiestnikowski Palace and hosted by the Minister of Internal Affairs Czeslaw Kiszczak, was a big mistake. To begin with, the palace is a symbol of the Tsarist occupation – its chandeliers, marble and carpets are symbols of power, wealth and prestige. These values were completely foreign to the leaders of Solidarity – workers who grew up in factories, farms and workshops, and this contrast was incredibly visible on the television broadcast. Furthermore, Minister Kiszczak well knew that for us, leaders of strikes and underground movements, having to shake his hand as he welcomed us to the negotiations would be seen as a gesture of accepting his authority. This feeling was hard for those of us who have sat behind bars and have already felt the pain of police sticks in their backs, all under his command.
Our experience aptly shows us that the choice of location and host has strong symbolic importance. A national library or university would have been proper places to discuss public and national problems, and the rector of a university could have served as an appropriate host. 

The radical leadership and supporters

Radicals are those who act without fear of the authorities, willing to risk their freedom, health, and even lives. They organize strikes, protests, occupations, and so on. It is mainly their activity that forces the other side into beginning the negotiations – they have the keys to the solution of the problems, and therefore must take part in the process of making the most important decisions. In Poland, radicalism had two faces: The first were Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuronia – keeping them from participating in the round table talks would have been a victory for the alliance between parts of the episcopate and of the party hard-liners, and for the security services that tried to portray the two as enemies of the state and of the nation. The second face of radicalism were the leaders of the underground movement, backed by hundred, perhaps thousands, of determined “soldiers”. The success of the negotiations is based on the consent of these radicals, and fortunately, the architects of the round table talks understood that if these radicals would not participate in the conversations, they would oppose them. Sitting as a leader of the “radicals” at the round table, I was aware that my role was to calm the skeptics, pacify the resistance, and convince even the most devoted supporters of Solidarity to agree with the results of the negotiations. Together with other leaders of the movement, we did it successfully.
During the negotiations, we were convinced that in case of success, under new conditions of a democratic regime and free market and within the reforms of the governmental system, we would manage to find a way to embrace even the most devoted activists of the Solidarity movement. Unfortunately, we were wrong. Times of construction appear to be different from times of destruction, and the process of marginalization of many of the Solidarity activists is one of the most fascinating ones in the transition process, which I often see in many post-totalitarian regimes. It is very different from similar processes that took place in Western countries such as France and the United States, in which activists were given the possibility to advance in other spheres of public life.
The fate of marginalized activists after the transformation should be taken into consideration in similar process taking place in other countries, such as Ukraine. The “soldiers of Maidan” will not accept being treated as tools, and the chances of achieving a peaceful transition rely on this understanding. 

"As Pole to Pole"

The Polish round table talks were the natural continuation of the August Agreements from 1980, and were based on the motto “Let’s talk as Pole to Pole”. This motto had immense significance- it meant that both sides understood that the only way to go is the way of dialogue. It also reminded all that the talks were being held under the eyes of the “Big Brother” – the Soviet Union and its troops, located all around Poland and even inside it. “Talking as Pole to Pole” meant that all sides understood that only by common effort could they navigate their way through the “red sea” and overcome the Soviet threat over Poland. The Polish case thus teaches us that all negotiating sides must by any means appreciate their responsibility towards the country and towards the citizens, and understand the dangers that await, should the negotiations fail. Only by being aware of the risks and responsibilities, are the sides capable of seeing each other not as enemies, but as integral parts of the chain that keeps the nation together. 

Can this lesson also be applied to other cases, and negotiations held “as Ukrainian to Ukrainian”, “Belarusian to Belarusian”, or “Syrian to Syrian”? To do so, there must be a common understanding among the public in regards to the state of the nation, its existential geopolitical problems, and the key factors threatening its continuity. This is challenging intellectual work, and a serious test for the intellectual elites of the country (including the religious ones). The protesters in Maidan said loud and clear that they want Ukraine to be part of the European community, and not part of the club of authoritarian and corrupt governments. This is the source of radicalization and mobilization, and it is also a clear stand regarding the geopolitical situation of the country. This is why my sympathy is all towards the “radicals of Maidan”. 

Upon starting the conversation, negotiators from both sides must also be aware that they are starting a process of transition of power, a difficult process both for those giving away power, and for those receiving it. The fear of losing power often triggers resistance from those holding it, and might push them to try to sabotage the transition process. The assassination of two priests associated with the Solidarity movement and, similarly, the assassination of Chris Hani during the transition process in South Africa, are good examples of such attempts. Both sides must be able to recognize provocations and avoid falling into traps that might lead to the failure of the process. It is important to remember that a violent and chaotic transition of power has dire consequences for the country, for the economy, and for the citizens.
Difficulties in coming to power are associated with what I refer to as the “patriarchal syndrome”, also known as soft authoritarianism. The process works as following: During the oppositional struggle, the leaders of the movement disable any authoritarian tendencies within it. Open dialogue serves as the basis of the movement and the source of public participation and support. For the citizens, the transition heralds a completely new culture of public administration. The agreements of the round table talks opened the doors to the establishment of numerous firms, colleges, hospitals, and so on; it happened because people felt that they had won their battle and were now part of the system. However, among those who obtain governing power, we can observe a certain mental shift: public participation is no longer a goal, but rather a problem. Instead of fostering activism among the citizens, the ex-oppositionist ministers now focus on constraining it.  The public, of course, knows this authoritarian syndrome very well; it had been struggling against it once already, and has learned to recognize it very quickly. The huge discrepancy between the words of the ex-oppositionist leaders and their practices causes a quick and steep drop of public support. 

Is there a way to avoid this syndrome, and assure proper governance after the transition? Yes. Western countries have great experience in reforms of political, social and economic systems. One can simply ask them how. The European Union has even launched a program to assist countries undergoing transitional reforms. It is called “Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance”. 

Zbigniew Bujak is a Polish political activist. He was among the leaders of the democratic opposition in communist Poland, and served as Member of Parliament in the first and second terms after the democratic transition in the country. 

Translated from Polish: Daniel Slomka