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Polish president talks about history in the making

Adjunct Professor Lynn Holland is accustomed to speaking forcefully about heads of state in her Contemporary Politics class. She isn’t quite as used to speaking to them.

So when Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former president of Poland, showed up with his bodyguard on Sept. 14 for some candid talk about Europe and world affairs, it was an unusual day.

“President Kwasniewski was a very good teacher,” Holland says. “He was patient and detailed.”

The former Polish chief executive had time to talk to students at the Graduate School of International Studies instead of running Poland because in 2005 he completed his second five-year term. The departure was a requirement he himself had pushed for when he helped Poland usher in its present constitution in 1997. 

Now he’s an ex-president, relaxed, out of the limelight and visiting the University of Denver as a senior fellow at the invitation of the provost’s office. 

“I’m so happy that I can now be without a tie,” he jokes.

Holland’s students, however, had more on their mind than the ex-president’s comforts, raising thorny issues of Polish history and politics and getting answers from a person who was in the eye of the storm during a key part of Poland’s westernization. 

Kwasniewski says the nation reached five crucial milestones under his watch:
1. Poland embraced a free-market economy for the first time since the Communists imposed a centralized system at the end of World War II. Today, he says, 86 percent of Poland’s gross domestic product is from the private sector;
2. It adopted a modern constitution in 1997 that democratized the nation and shifted the entire political system to a western-style democracy “without one drop of blood”;
3. The country entered NATO in 1999, becoming allies with Germany “for the first time in 1,000 years”;
4. Poland gained full membership in the European Union in 2004; and
5. It established stable political and diplomatic ties with neighboring nations, none of which existed after 1991. The Soviet Union, German Democratic Republic and Czechoslovakia, which formerly ringed Poland, have been replaced by Russia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Germany.

Such were the challenges for Kwasniewski, a former 100-meter sprinter, student activist and communist party member. He rose his way through the political ranks from the early ’70s until 1995, when he defeated famed solidarity movement leader Lech Walesa to become president. Despite fears he would return the nation to communism, Kwasniewski edged the nation toward the West and in 2000 won re-election.

“I served my country, region, neighborhood and world,” he says. “It was an interesting and successful time.”

Kwasniewski says he is optimistic that his successor, Lech Kaczynski, will continue to push Poland toward being a “strong, responsible member” of the [European] community and overcoming the nation’s current problems. These include public impatience with the change to a market economy, disaffection among the electorate for the political process, organized crime and corruption and the changing nature of geopolitical turmoil in nations such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Poland presently has 100 troops in Afghanistan but in mid-September pledged to send 1,000 more by February. Poland also has 900 troops in Iraq but has plans to remove them at the end of 2006.

“We can win a war in a few weeks,” Kwasniewski says, “but to make peace takes years. We may need an international presence in these nations for decades, not years. 

“I’m not optimistic.”

Kwasniewski is scheduled to speak to GSIS students again Sept. 18 from noon to 1:45 p.m. in Cherrington Hall.

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