Wałesa, Lech (1943– )
Polish statesman and trade-union leader: president of Poland (1990–95). He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.
Born in Popowo, the son of a carpenter, Wałesa was educated in Lipino before moving to Gdansk in 1966, where he worked as an electrician in the Lenin Shipyards. In 1976 he was dismissed from his position for taking part in a protest over the erosion of economic concessions made to workers by the government after the food riots in 1970. For the next four years Wałesa was unemployed, although he edited an underground paper and participated in meetings of the Workers' Self-Defence Committee. In 1980, when workers demanded higher wages as compensation for price increases and scattered strikes occurred across Poland, Wałesa scaled the fence at the Lenin Shipyards to join workers occupying the yard. Taking charge of the strike, which spread across the Baltic region, he negotiated an agreement with the government providing for the right of workers to form independent unions and to strike. After some ten million workers had registered, he was appointed chairman of the National Coordinating Committee of Independent Autonomous Trade Unions, known as Solidarity.
In 1981 martial law was imposed by the government in response to worker militancy over the failure to implement the Gdansk agreement and to pressure from the Soviet Union; this led to the banning of Solidarity. Wałesa was detained for eleven months (1981–82) and was awarded the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to establish workers' rights. In the face of the worsening economic situation in Poland, the government of General Wojciech Jaruzelski (1923– ) began negotiations with Wałesa and other Solidarity leaders in 1988 and in 1989 Solidarity was given legal status once more. A partially free election followed, with Solidarity's candidates winning all but one seat of those contested. Jaruzelski became president but a year later Wałesa, the preferred candidate of the Roman Catholic Church, won a landslide victory in the presidential elections.
As president Wałesa capitalized on his high international standing by visiting western countries and negotiating much-needed financial assistance for Poland. He also agreed friendship treaties with the reunited Germany and post-communist Russia. At home, however, his personal influence counted for less in the face of continuing economic crisis and political instability. A series of indecisive elections and short-lived governments prompted Wałesa's attempt, in 1991, to increase his own powers over the legislature, but in this he was rebuffed by parliament. His influence waned further as popular disenchantment led to the election of a government led by former communists in 1993. Although Wałesa remained a national hero to many, others agreed that his authoritarian instincts and lack of political finesse made him an increasing liability. He was defeated by a former communist, Aleksander Kwasniewski (1954– ), in the presidential elections of 1995 and returned to his former trade as an electrician.