Poland's Walesa calls for 'system change' in Russia

Anna Maria Jakubek
·3-min read

Polish freedom icon Lech Walesa on Wednesday called for international cooperation to bring about "system change" in Russia following the jailing of opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

A former leader of the Solidarity labour movement that brought a peaceful end to communism in Poland in 1989, Walesa called Navalny a "hero" who could one day win a Nobel Peace Prize.

The 77-year-old former Polish president spoke a day after top Kremlin critic Navalny was handed a prison term, leading his supporters to take to the streets of Moscow in protest.

"He doesn't have a Nobel (peace) prize yet, but he'll deserve one if he continues to take a stand like this," said Walesa, who himself won the award in 1983 for his leadership of Solidarity.

"We need heroes like him, but we also require a different kind of international solidarity to bring about a system change in Russia," Walesa told AFP in an interview in the city of Gdansk where his battle against communism began.

On Tuesday, Navalny received a jail term of two years and eight months for violating the terms of a 2014 suspended sentence on embezzlement charges he claims were a pretext to silence him.

Walesa said if he had a chance to speak to the 44-year-old anti-corruption campaigner he would tell him to follow his communist-era example and fight the system.

"I felt that it wasn't the people who were to blame, but the system which allows for bad behaviour on the part of leaders. And that's something you can see in Russia," Walesa said.

"We shouldn’t be fighting against (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, specific individuals, or the police. Instead, we should be fighting for a new system that would preclude this kind of behaviour," he said.

- Protesting women -

Working as a shipyard electrician in Gdansk, Walesa stunned the communist bloc and the world when he led a 1980 strike by 17,000 shipyard workers.

The communist regime was forced to grudgingly recognise Solidarity as the Soviet bloc's first and only independent trade union after it gained millions of followers across Poland.

Walesa later became Poland's first post-war democratically elected president in 1990.

The latest struggle in Poland has been over reproductive rights, with thousands protesting a government-backed court ruling that imposed a near-total ban on abortion last week.

The verdict means that all abortions in Poland are now banned except in cases of rape and incest, or when the mother's life or health are considered to be at risk.

Speaking of the protesting women, Walesa said: "I support them with all my heart. They are right.

"But for now I don't see any hope for the women's victory. Because a victory would have to involve overthrowing those in power, and those in power won't let themselves be overthrown," he added.

The outspoken critic of the right-wing ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party said he himself did not plan any return to politics.

"Of course I'm a patriot and whenever the nation calls, I'm available. But... I’m now 77-years-old and no longer have the energy that I did back then."