WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland was split on Monday over where to bury General Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Communist leader who for years helped the Kremlin suppress dissent behind the Iron Curtain before finally allowing democratic rule.
Supporters of Jaruzelski, who died on Sunday aged 90, said he should be buried with full military honours befitting a former president who outsmarted his masters in the Soviet Union to deliver Poland to freedom without major bloodshed.
His opponents say he was a stooge of the Kremlin, that under his rule dozens of Poles were killed, and that he does not deserve a plot in the elite military ceremony in Warsaw where his family have asked that he be buried.
The debate shows how Polish society, 25 years on from the collapse of the Berlin Wall, is still wrestling with the questions of how to fend off an assertive Russia - an issue sharpened this year by the Kremlin’s annexation of parts of neighboring Ukraine.
Jaruzelski imposed martial law in 1981 to suppress the Solidarity trade union movement, led by the shipyard electrician Lech Walesa who would later become president. Hundreds of people were jailed, and dozens were killed.
Jaruzelski argued his actions had prevented the Kremlin from sending in tanks to Poland, as it had earlier in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. By 1989, he convened talks that led to the first partially free elections in Poland, and stepped down.
Jaruzelski’s daughter, Monika, said on Monday she wanted her father buried in the Lane of Honour at the Powazki military cemetery in central Warsaw, where Polish generals are buried, often with an honour guard and military orchestra.
As a career soldier, Jaruzelski “would have wanted to lie at rest among those who were closest to him”, his daughter told Poland’s state news agency.
Leszek Miller, a former Communist Party colleague of Jaruzelski who after the fall of the Berlin Wall served as prime minister, went further, sending a letter to the president requesting a national day of mourning.
“I call for solemnity,” said Miller, now the head of a leftist opposition party.
But other Poles demanded Jaruzelski be buried with a minimum of pomp. A Facebook group called “Stop the burial of Comrade Jaruzelski at Powazki”, had attracted 2,500 followers by early Monday afternoon.
“The nation does not have amnesia, and remembers the blood of Poles, and not only Poles, that Jaruzelski has on his hands,” Maciej Nerkowski, one of those who followed the Facebook page, told Reuters.
Professor Antoni Dudek, who sits on the board of the Institute of National Remembrance, a state body which researches rights abuses committed under Communist rule, said Poland’s national identity was at stake.
“If a state funeral is organized for General Jaruzelski, with all the honours, this will mean the Polish state also honours everything he symbolized, from being a vassal of the Soviet Union to using violence,” Dudek told Reuters.
The decision on what sort of funeral Jaruzelski is accorded will ultimately be made by President Bronislaw Komorowski.
Komorowski made his name in the 1970s and 1980s as a dissident, organizing anti-Communist protests and publishing an underground journal. Under Jaruzelski’s rule, he was arrested several times.
But in a recognition that Jaruzelski’s legacy was not black and white, in 2010 Komorowski invited the general, by then using a walking stick, to attend a meeting of the National Security Council to share his views on how to deal with Russia.
A spokeswoman for the president’s office said no decision on Jaruzelski’s burial would be announced before Tuesday.
(This story has been corrected to fix the role of Facebook user in paragraph 12)
Additional reporting by Adrian Krajewski; Editing by Alison Williams