With all the attention being paid to German reunification and the fall of the Berlin Wall - plus this past year's events in Romania, Hungary and Czechoslovakia - it's easy to forget that it was Poland that toppled the first domino to start the collapse of the Soviet East Bloc.
But not until last week, when Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski announced that he will step down as president in November, could Poland face the prospect of an entirely free government. The general is the last communist strongman still in power in Eastern EuropeHis resignation comes in only the second year of his six-year term and opens the way for free elections in two months. Lech Walesa, the founder of Solidary labor union, whom Jaruzelski fought and imprisoned, is a candidate to replace Jaruzelski as president.
How Jaruzelski will be remembered is something of a puzzle. Will he be hated or respected, or both? Will people recall his imposing martial law to crush a rising democracy movement in the early 1980s? Or will they think instead of about his allowing a free election in 1989 and the sharing of power with non-communist? His place in history is not easy to assess.
Growing Polish rebellion, headed by Solidarity workers, led to a crackdown in 1981 by Jaruzelski and was followed by several years of repression. But did he do it as a form of Polish control instead of having the Soviets invade? Analysts are divided on the question, but there is evidence that the Polish leader acted so that the Kremlin would not. Remember, this was before Gorbachev.
It was Jaruzelski who allowed limited free elections in 1989. In every parliament seat where opposition was permitted, the communists went down to lopsided defeat. The Communist Party retained control over the lower house of parliament and Jaruzelski was named president. But the voting debacle was so total that the Communist Party had to change its name.
Since then, Jaruzelski has slowly given ground to democratic reforms, perhaps in an effort to provide an orderly transition to freedom. Now he is leaving office and opening the way to totally free elections.
Whether he is replaced by Walesa or someone else, Poland faces the same turmoil and problems in switching to a free society as the rest of Eastern Europe. The years ahead will be difficult ones. In the meantime, Jaruzelski remains an enigma.