Jan Olszewski passed away on February 7th at the age of 88. He was responsible for seeing through the agreement which made the Soviet Red Army leave Poland after 49 years of occupation. Prime Minister Olszewski was one of the leading figures fighting for lustration of the political elite following the collapse of the communist system in Central Eastern Europe, trying to steer Poland in a direction which would allow Poles to keep prominent communists and agents as well as informers of the communist security services away from political power.
The funeral ceremony started at 11AM at St. John’s Archcathedral in Warsaw. Polish President Andrzej Duda and many other top officials were present to pay their respect, including one of Olszewski’s closest friends, former Minister of Defence Antoni Macierewicz who stayed by Olszewski’s side in the final hours of his life.
The cortege with the Prime Minister’s body, accompanied by the Polish Army’s Guard of Honor and large crowds of mourners, arrived at the Powązki Cemetary shortly after 3PM.
Jan Olszewski was born in 1930 and turned 14 during the Warsaw Uprising against Nazi Germany. Despite his young age, Olszewski participated in the uprising as a message boy serving in the Grey Ranks organized by the Polish Scouting Organization. His pseudonym during the uprising was Orlik and he actively participated in a successful attack on German position at a school in the region of Bródno.
Following the war, Olszewski went on to study law at the University of Warsaw, from which he graduated in 1953. Shortly before the political thaw known as “Polish October” following the Poznań 1956 protests, Olszewski penned an article in defense of the veterans of the Home Army, the legitimate military underground organization during the Second World War, who after the war were persecuted by the communist authorities.
The communist government quickly closed down the Olszewski’s publication and gave Olszewski a publication ban for having voiced anti-socialist concepts. The event marked the start of Olszewski’s life as a political dissident. He became a member of the clandestine discussion group for intellectuals critical of the communist government known as “Klub Krzywego Koła” (The Club of the Crooked Circle).
Until the fall of communism in 1989, Olszewski used position as a skilled lawyer to defend other political dissidents in court against the regime. One of the most famous cases he would participate in was the 1984 trial against the members of secret service who had murdered one of the main spiritual leaders of the Solidarity movement, the Catholic priest Jerzy Popiełuszko.
Olszewski himself was one of the most prominent members of the solidarity movement and one of its most active legal counsels. He advised Solidarity on legal issues during the 1989 Round Table Talks after which the period of transition of power from the communist regime to democratic state was started. In the following years, Olszewski became highly critical of the way the democratic opposition had acted after the Round Table Talks. He argued that many leaders of the Solidarity movment instead of removing the communist elite from power, had been co-opted by them and now helped them to cement their political and financial influence in the new democratic Polish III Republic
Olszewski became the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the III Republic after the Parliamentary elections of 1991. Olszewski quickly entered into conflict with the political establishment in three key policy issues.
He opposed the neoliberal “shock-therapy” advocated by the Minister of Finance, Leszek Balcerowicz, and swiftly removed him from his cabinet. Olszewski argued that shock-therapy resulted in an unacceptable rise of unemployment while also selling out assets of the Polish state for pennies to private interests.
Secondly, Olszewski clashed with President Lech Wałesa on the issue of the removal of Soviet troops from Polish territory and on the position whether Poland should join NATO or not. Olszewski criticized Wałesa for planning to sign an agreement with the Soviet which would allow them to remove the bulk of their troops from Poland but retain certain presence in the military bases they had created in Poland after 1945. Olszewski made it clear to Wałesa that the President didn’t have the authority to sign such an agreement and that it would have sabotaged Poland’s plans on joining NATO.
The Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, the same month that Olszewski was elected Prime Minister. It sped up the decision by Poland declare in official state documents the country’s intention was join NATO and remove all Soviet forces from Polish territory. The Polish stance was not received well in the newly created Russian Federation which still viewed Poland as laying within its sphere of influence. President Wałesa seemed to support the Russian position as he travelled to Germany in March 1992 and declared that he wanted Poland and other countries in Central Eastern Europe to create an organization called NATO bis instead of joining NATO itself.
The new organization would be a military alliance consisting of former Soviet satellite states in Central Eastern Europe and would receive security guarantees by both the U.S. and the Russian Federation. Wałesa’s announcement had not been consulted with Olszewski’s governemnt and came right before a planned state visit of Olszewski to the U.S. Walesa’s announcement had made Poland come across as internally divided and not ready to join NATO.
The third policy area in which OIszewski clashed with Wałesa as well as large parts of the liberal and socialists factions on the political scene concerned the issue of lustration. The lustration process was meant to shed light on the individuals who had participated in the crimes of communist regime or served as agents and informants of the security services during communism. It could be considered a Central European equivalent of the de-Nazification process which took place in Germany following the Second World War.
Czechoslovakia was first out with legislation on lustration in October 1991. Olszewski’s government followed suit by passing a lustration bill which had been presented in parliament on May 28th 1992. A couple of days later, the Minister of Interior Antoni Macierewicz released a list of names of informers having worked for the communist secret services ,which had been compiled based on information available in classified state archives.
President Wałesa’s name was on the list together with the Speaker of the Parliament and 62 other names of members of the government, parliament and the senate.
Making the names of the informers public was one of the last acts of Olszewski’s government which didn’t survive a vote of no-confidence later that night. The decommunization bill which had started the process of lustration was later declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Tribunal.
Olszewski was replaced as Prime Minister by Waldemar Pawlak, a political ally of President Lech Wałesa, and never returned to a high position in Polish politics again. However, he did form a new party which barely made it across the parliamentary threshold in the parliamentary elections of 1997. He did also serve as a presidential adviser to Lech Kaczyński between 2006 and Kaczyński’s death in the Smolensk Air Disaster on April 10th 2010.
As Poles mourn the loss of the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the Polish III Republic, the legacy of Jan Olszewski lives on. His stance on key policy issues has been vindicated as years have passed by. Polish public opinion has veered in a conservative direction in recent years and Olszewski’s stance on issues such as the Round Table Talks, shock-therapy, NATO-bis and lustration is now shared by large parts of society.
It took more than 20 years after the fall of Olszewski’s government but the national conservative ideas he professed did eventually take root in Polish society and particularly with young Poles. Regardless of his short time in office, the late Prime Minister will surely be remembered as one of the great political figures who lead Poland through the transformation from a communist regime to a democratic state.