Former Reuters Director General on the transformation of Poland

18-06-2004

Fifteen years ago this month in Poland the Solidarity movement achieved a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections, winning all the seats it was allowed to contest. The 1989 elections are seen as the beginning of the collapse of the communist system in Poland. Three months later, a prominent Solidarity politician became prime minister in Poland's first-ever Solidarity-led government. Michael Nelson is a former director general of Reuters News Service and author of the book 'War of the Black Heavens. The Battles of Western Broadcasting in the Cold War'. In the preface to the book, former Polish president Lech Wałęsa wrote that 'without Western broadcasting totalitarian regimes would have survived much longer'. On his recent visit to Warsaw, Michael Nelson spoke about Poland 15 years ago and now:

"I came to Poland just after the Berlin Wall came down, and I must say it was a very depressing place. I always think it was epitomized by my driving through the city with an official in the morning at 11 o'clock where there was a very bad rush hour. And I said to her - this is extraordinary. How can you have a rush hour at 11 o'clock in the morning. And she said - well, of course, people have come to their offices, and then they have left their offices to do their shopping. I often tell this story. But having been in Warsaw on this occasion there is no rush hour at 11 o'clock. The rush hour is early in the morning and late at night. And I think that that typifies the change."

15 years on Poland is a member of the European Union and it's a totally different country. How do you look at Poland and its current problems?

"Well, I think obviously one has to be very concerned at the unemployment rate of some 20 percent in Poland and that naturally does concern us. Obviously though, Poland will benefit from its membership of the European community. And Poland, of course, does have the tremendous advantage of having excellent workers. I had my house reconstructed in London ten years ago by immigrant Polish workers and they did a far superior job to anything that an English workman would have done."

Do you think that Poland has an important role to play in the European Union? There is some fear in Poland that there will be a division into bigger and smaller countries, richer and poorer countries. There is, of course, the debate on the European Constitution...

"I think that it's a real danger. I think that Poland has to be very vigilant in not allowing itself to be treated as a second-class country."

18-06-2004