WARSAW Poland's first prime minister after the fall of communism, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, died on Monday at the age of 86, Polish media reported.
Mazowiecki, who emerged from Poland's dissident intellectual tradition, was famously photographed making a victory sign after his election for prime minister, which marked the beginning of the end of 40 years of Cold War politics in Eastern Europe.
He was one of the architects of the "Round Table" talks, which brought together the Soviet-installed communist authorities and the opposition to pave the way for Poland's peaceful transition to democracy in 1989.
"It is a shame that such person is passing away," Nobel Peace Price laureate and former President Lech Walesa, who appointed Mazowiecki as prime minister, told public broadcaster TVP.
"Moreover, the Polish democracy is failing a little bit now and we would need him here, but it seems that he is also needed on the other side."
Leszek Miller, Poland's prime minister between 2001 and 2004, told public television: "I saw Tadeusz Mazowiecki for the first time at the round table. He was very balanced, not keen on escalating conflicts, caring and sober at analysis,"
At the round table talks, Miller represented the opposing, Communist, camp.
Born in 1927, Mazowiecki also authored the "thick line" concept under which lower-rank officials of the communist regime could also work to the benefit of the newly-democratic Poland.
Some of Poland's rightist groups criticised him for this, saying his approach allowed many communist officials avoid responsibility for their wrong-doings before 1989.
As prime minister, he oversaw Poland's shock economic therapy of early 1990s aimed at replacing the centrally controlled communist economy with a free market and sought to mend ties with Poland's neighbours, such as Germany.
Mazowiecki was a Catholic activist under communism and joined the Solidarity trade union 1980 strikes in the Gdansk shipyard offering support for the protesting workers from the country's independent intellectuals.
Arrested in 1981 when the communist authorities declared martial law to crush Solidarity, he became an adviser to the union's charismatic leader Lech Walesa, later elected to become Poland's first post-war non-communist president in 1990.
(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska and Karolina Slowikowska; Editing by Alistair Lyon)