Poland's Walesa turns 75 in emotional ceremony

Warsaw -

Polish freedom hero Lech Walesa, shunned by the current right-wing government, on Saturday celebrated his 75th birthday and the 35th anniversary of his Nobel Peace Prize in the presence of 500 guests including EU President Donald Tusk.

"I don't think I've ever had so many people around me, such illustrious people, so many ambassadors," the visibly emotional former Polish president said at the event held at the opera house in the northern city of Gdansk.

It was there in 1980 that Walesa, working as a shipyard electrician, stunned the world when he led a 1980 strike by 17,000 shipyard workers.

The strike forced authorities to grudgingly recognise the communist bloc's first and only independent trade union, Solidarity.

"A hundred years," chanted the crowd, among them friends, politicians, trade unionists and entertainment figures.

Tusk, who was born in Gdansk and in 1980 founded the Independent Students' Association (NZS) which was part of the Solidarity movement, paid tribute to the 1983 Nobel laureate.

"What you have done was the most beautiful thing for all Poles," he said.

"Without bloodshed, Solidarity and freedom triumphed," he added, handing Walesa a letter signed by all the EU heads of state except Polish President Andrzej Duda.

Walesa received a gift of a Fiat 126p, a tiny car which was tremendously popular in Poland in the 1970s.

Outside in a public square in Gdansk an installation of thousands of ribbons, in the red and white of the Polish flag, formed an image of Walesa.

The ruling conservative party, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has since 2015 sought to downplay Walesa's role in the fight for Poland's escape from the shadow of the Soviet Union.

Although both men fought Poland's communist regime, they later became bitter foes amid power struggles in the early years of Poland's democracy.

Walesa has faced accusations that he collaborated with the communist secret police in the early 1970s, something he has strongly denied.

Poland's conservative PiS government has also altered school texts to minimise Walesa's historical importance and to stress that of Lech Kaczynski, Jaroslaw's twin brother who died in a plane crash in Russia in 2010.