WARSAW (Reuters) - Polish statesman Tadeusz Mazowiecki, whose appointment in 1989 as the first non-communist prime minister in the Soviet bloc helped usher in democratic change across eastern Europe, died on Monday aged 86.
Tributes poured in from Poland, Germany and beyond for the shy former dissident intellectual who was famously photographed making a victory sign in August 1989 after his appointment by the Soviet-backed Polish president, General Wojciech Jaruzelski.
By the end of that year, the Berlin Wall had fallen, communist regimes in Moscow’s other satellite states had collapsed and the Cold War division of the continent was over.
“It is a shame that such a person has passed away,” Lech Walesa, who replaced Jaruzelski as Poland’s first postwar non-communist head of state in 1990, told public broadcaster TVP.
“Besides, Polish democracy is failing a bit these days and we could do with him here, but it seems he is also needed on the other side,” added Walesa, a devout Catholic.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, praised Mazowiecki for his contribution to the reunification of Europe and of Germany.
“With his tireless dedication to freedom and self-determination, he made an unforgettable contribution to overcoming authority and injustice and also to unifying Europe,” Merkel said in a statement.
“As prime minister of Poland at a time when Germany was undergoing big changes, he promoted and supported both the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of our country.”
Jaruzelski, now aged 90, also praised his old adversary Mazowiecki, with whom he negotiated Poland’s transition from a one-party state in the “Round Table Talks” that led to partially free elections in June 1989 won by the Solidarity trade union.
“I have always admired his calmness, his resoluteness and his decisiveness,” Jaruzelski told TVP Info.
Poland’s current president, Bronislaw Komorowski, also paid tribute to Mazowiecki’s “wise and calm will”, saying he had set the course for Poland’s democratic transformation.
As prime minister, Mazowiecki demonstrated his pragmatism with his “thick line” concept whereby lower-ranking communist-era officials could also work in the newly democratic Poland.
Some of Poland’s right-wing groups criticized him for this approach, saying it allowed many communist officials to avoid responsibility for their wrongdoing before 1989.
Mazowiecki oversaw Poland’s “shock therapy” reforms that entailed a rapid if wrenchingly painful transition from a centrally planned command economy to a free market system in which prices and wages are determined by supply and demand.
He also sought to improve ties with western Europe, paving the way for Poland’s eventual membership of NATO and the European Union.
Born in 1927 in the central Polish town of Plock, Mazowiecki was a Catholic journalist and activist under communism, joining Solidarity’s 1980 strike in the Gdansk shipyard and forging ties between the protesting workers and anti-communist intellectuals.
Arrested in 1981 when the communist authorities declared martial law to crush Solidarity, he became an adviser to Walesa, the union’s charismatic leader.
After his stint as prime minister ended in 1991, Mazowiecki remained active in Polish and European politics, championing Poland’s membership of Western clubs and European unification.
Additional reporting by Karolina Slowikowska in Warsaw and Alexandra Hudson in Berlin; Editing by Gareth Jones