A tale of two Polands: the cowed country that has turned into a European leader

US president Barack Obama is in Warsaw for celebrations and quiet diplomacy

US president Barack Obama is welcomed by Polish prime minister Donald Tusk at the latter’s office in Warsaw yesterday.   Photograph: Reuters/Kacper Pempel

US president Barack Obama is welcomed by Polish prime minister Donald Tusk at the latter’s office in Warsaw yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Kacper Pempel

Wed, Jun 4, 2014, 01:00

World leaders, lead by US president Barack Obama, will pay tribute to two Polands today.

The first is the Poland that, on this date 25 years ago, went to the polls and changed the course of European history. The second is today’s Poland: a transformed place almost four times the size of Ireland whose time – finally – has come.

On June 4th, 1989, a landslide vote saw Poland’s opposition Solidarity movement win almost all parliamentary seats made available by the dwindling communist regime to other political parties. After four decades under a Soviet shadow, the result set out shockwaves that, four months later, toppled the Berlin Wall.

The shadow of Moscow over neighbouring Ukraine means that, these days, Poles are looking as nervously towards their future as they are proudly at their past. But today remains a day to take stock of the bumpy road travelled since 1989 with ironic Polish humour typified by Jan Krzysztof Bielecki.

Once a Solidarity trade union activist and now economic adviser to prime minister Donald Tusk, the 63-year-old also served, in 1991, as one of many short-term Polish leaders.

“In the early days we had more prime ministers than a football team has players,” said Mr Bielecki. “But that political turnover actually benefited reform, contrary to the conventional wisdom.”

Chaotic decade

Poland’s first decade of transition seemed chaotic at the time but, he says, proved a necessary period of creative chaos. Revolving door administrations grasped at successive straws – agriculture, coal, manufacturing – but learned eventually that, in market capitalism, there is no silver bullet of economic salvation.

Warsaw’s trial and frequent error, punctuated by colourful scandals and political slanging matches constituted, in hindsight, laps on the democratic development track that tempered Poland’s public administration and, with an eye on the EU, ensured it didn’t follow Ukraine and Belarus down the oligarch path.

The years since joining Nato and, a decade ago, the EU sometimes proved a frustrating apprenticeship for Polish officials. After not being heeded for years, particularly on Russia, the Poles are now go-to experts on the Ukraine crisis thanks to their unrivalled knowledge and Kiev contacts.

Polish officials are hopeful yesterday’s announcement of the $1 billion US “European Reassurance Initiative” moves Washington and its Nato allies beyond lip service on security commitments.

With a nervous eye on Russia, Poland wants concrete proof of solidarity from its allies: Nato troops on Polish soil and progress on the long-threatened, never-delivered missile defence programme.

Polish vulnerability, and memories of promises not kept, weighs over today’s anniversary and Europe’s other anniversary this week. The D-Day landings of 1944 turned the tide of the second World War, but the eventual victory over the Third Reich handed Poland over to the Soviet bloc. Its people had another 45 years to wait for a chance at democracy and self-determination.

German relations

Even if Polish relations with Russia are once again on edge, ties to its other problem neighbour, Germany, are at a historical high water mark. Chancellor Angela Merkel, once a regular East German visitor to communist Poland, never tires of thanking Poles – and reminding Germans – that the Berlin Wall fell in large part thanks to Polish bravery.

Today’s Poland has emerged as “first among equals” in the eastern bloc. Its people did the heavy lifting, senior Warsaw officials say, but having an EU accession perspective was key. Witold Orlowski, chief economic adviser at PWC Poland and aide to Mr Tusk, says working towards EU membership was painful and expensive but opened a door to new global markets for Poland’s still reforming economy.

“Motivating us in the long accession talks was the belief that, to be a normal economy, this all must be done,” he said. Despite a robust economy – Poland is the only country not to enter recession in recent years – Mr Orlowski concedes there are two sides to Poland’s transition.

Alongside the “shining face”, as he puts it, is the country of large income discrepancies where many earn modest Polish salaries while living lives with western European price tags. Serving as a social safety valve in the last decade was mass emigration of young Poles to western EU countries such as Britain and Ireland.

As with Irish migration to England, he believes Polish emigration will slow only when salaries reach levels that correspond to the expectations of university leavers. Many of the current generation of emigrants aren’t coming back, he concedes.

Economic leap

At a Warsaw conference organised last week by Poland Today magazine, editors said Poland’s quarter-century quantum leap has put it in the role Ireland filled for accession countries a decade ago. “In effect Poland has made up for 500 years of economic backwardness in 25 years,” said Richard Stephens, the magazine publisher.

“It is held up as an example of how to spend European funding. The irony is that not all Poles realise it.” Of course today’s stability is far from a given. At the Warsaw conference, business leaders lined up to warn that future prosperity depends on making the leap from a low-cost manufacturing to an innovating economy.

The current political calm, meanwhile, could change next year if voters oust Mr Tusk and return opposition leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski to office.

Ahead of next year’s general election, Polish business leaders are impatient at Warsaw’s wait-and-see approach on whether to join the euro zone.

“I am afraid that if we don’t have a decision to join, we won’t be involved in the economic and political work going on now,” said Henryka Bochniarz, president of the Polish business confederation Lewiathan. Rather than wait on the sidelines, she argues that Warsaw should name an accession date and get involved in current euro reforms, to help counteract negative public opinion towards the single currency.

Acknowledging the political hot potato, Mr Bielecki, adviser to the prime minister, jokes: “We will probably join the euro after the UK.”

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