Puzzling Poland

Dec. 21, 2004
The bellwether of Eastern Europe's economic revolution, it remains a country of contradictions.

Is Poland Eastern Europe's strongest economy, Western Europe's weakest, or something in between? The people of Poland recognize with good humor that neighboring countries in Europe maintain wildly divergent views of their nation. According to the current joke, Western Europeans visiting Poland for the first time sniff derisively and exclaim, "Ugh, the East." When residents of lands to the east of Poland arrive, however, their reaction is usually a relieved, "Ahh, the West!" The fastest-growing economy among the newly liberated Central and Eastern European states, Poland is at the same time far from establishing a solid foundation of prosperity for all of its citizens. This fundamental contradiction is played out in many ways throughout the country. In the capital city of Warsaw, for example, gleaming new high-rise office towers are home to a growing number of Western firms. Just outside Warsaw, however, farmers still employ horses to pull wooden carts along dirt roads. In 1999 Poles purchased more than 600,000 new cars, the seventh highest per capita rate of new-car sales in all of Europe. There were also 1 million new Polish mobile-phone subscribers during the year, a 30% jump from 1998. But persistent unemployment runs between 12% and 14% a year, and crime -- particularly car theft -- is rampant in major cities. (In Gdansk recently, even an official van used to transport prisoners was stolen-from in front of a police station.) The World Bank reports that corruption is epidemic at all levels of government, from local officials to members of parliament and even cabinet ministers. Disillusionment is growing. Ten years ago, 80% of the population favored membership in the European Union, which Poland hopes to join by 2003. Today, only half of all Poles support EU membership, and the slow pace of needed reforms in the country has led some EU diplomats to speculate that a more likely date for membership might be the year 2006. Nevertheless, Polish GDP is growing at about 5% annually, the Warsaw bourse is hitting record highs, and manufacturing and exports, hurt so badly during and immediately after the 1998 Russian economic crisis, are showing new signs of life. Polish shipyard workers in Gdynia and Gdansk as early as 1970 struck the first blows against the hegemony of the Soviet empire. Now, with freedom in hand and prosperity within reach, the Poles intend to keep moving forward, no matter what challenges they must overcome.

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