Jan Cienski in Warsaw -
Jozef Oleksy considered entering the priesthood before he eventually became a communist apparatchik and later a prime minister in democratic Poland, and that swing of fortune remained a hallmark of the life of one of Poland’s most prominent leftwing politicians.
Oleksy, 68, died on January 9, killed by the cancer he had spent years battling. But the memories he left were of a man who gracefully adapted to his circumstances, leaving a positive glow that few in Poland’s turbulent and often vicious political world could match.
“I am saying a sincere farewell, because he was a person who created good thoughts, good associations, good feelings,” said Bronislaw Komorowski, Poland’s president and a one-time anti-communist dissident, adding that Oleksy “in his person illustrated the changes taking place in Poland".
Oleksy was raised in a pious family, even twice taking first communion, before starting his studies in a seminary. But the government’s decision to shut the school sent him in an altogether more secular direction. He ended up studying at the country’s main economic planning school and joined the Communist party. He also informed for military intelligence in the 1970s, something that haunted him decades later in a completely different political system.
“Yes, I was an opportunist,” he admitted in an interview with the Rzeczpospolita newspaper. “I have regrets but so what? That was how my life went, and it could have been different. Understand that I wanted to be active, to achieve something.”
Oleksy built himself a career as a regional party functionary before becoming a minister in the final Communist government of Mieczyslaw Rakowski. He took part in the 1989 round table talks with the Solidarity labour union which led to the party losing control of the country later that year. The economic reforms unleashed by the Solidarity government of Tadeusz Mazowiecki helped turn Poland into a capitalist success story, but the social costs were so high that the relabelled ex-communists managed to get back into power by 1993 – to the dismay of anti-communist activists who had spent most of their lives fighting the old system.
The gravel-voiced and ostentatiously bald Oleksy served as a good humoured speaker of parliament before taking over the government in 1995. However, he held office for less than a year before being ousted after he was accused of being a Russian agent using the code name “Olin”. He always denied the allegations and they were never proven, but they did cast a permanent shadow over his later career. After his death, Lech Walesa, the Nobel laureate, Solidarity leader and former president, said he was sorry that he had never properly apologized to Oleksy for the accusations.
Oleksy returned as interior minister and again parliamentary speaker during a second leftwing government that ruled from 2001 to 2005. A boozy 2007 lunch with well-connected millionaire Aleksander Gudzowaty made Oleksy a pariah with his old comrades. The spicy conversation between the two, filled with innuendos and accusations against other senior leftwing figures, was recorded and made public. Aleksander Kwasniewski, a former two-term president, called Oleksy a “traitor” for that.
In later years Oleksy retreated from public life, spending more time with his family. However, he ended up becoming the grandfatherly symbol of a communist made good – a man who had made his peace with the political and economic changes that have transformed Poland over the last quarter century.
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