Poland : From a Traumatic Past to a Promising Future by Angel Lopez Peiro

Poland : From a Traumatic Past to a Promising Future by Angel Lopez Peiro

By Angel Lopez Peiro
This is the portrait of a little-known country, undervalued and even sometimes affected by a bad image in the West. Is Poland a developing country? Developed country? Either Poland is already a full-time member of this estimable club, or is on its way to joining it, depending on how one interprets the country’s status in 2015.
Poland has achieved much in the past 40 years: the country played a substantive role in the fall of Soviet-driven communism, underwent a peaceful transition to democracy between 1989 to 1995, created a conciliatory bridge between the pre and post-communist societies in 1991, adopted free markets, and unleashed a speedy economic development – unprecedented in Europe – between 2004 to 2014.

Polish success: beyond low wages

After 25 years of a market economy, Poland now rests comfortably (ranked 31st) among the top 25% of the wealthiest countries, according to the World Prosperity Index 2014.
A Member State with a relatively large population, Poland carries significant political and economic weight in the EU since its elevation in 2004. Today Poland presents an innovative, inviting, and dynamic face to the rest of the world. Thus, Europe sees a new face in the mirror, a new player that shows the Old School (Hello France? Germany?) a new way of doing things. [Poland’s economic success has been explained by
Some media internationally have referred in recent years to the "Polish miracle". Undoubtedly, the liberal policies of the current government appear to have arisen effect and the Polish economy has grown steadily in a spectacular way in recent years, (though decelerating in early 2013). Polish economy actually grew by 3.3% in 2014. Even Nobel Prize Paul Krugman, an economist critical to liberalism, has acknowledged the recent economic success of Poland.
In Poland, as in many post-Soviet Bloc countries, most of society as well as many political parties having a presence in parliament – even those parties of post-communist origins – don’t no doubt the free market economy. The market economy is arguably the least harmful system by which a society can function and attain a certain level of progress.
Poland in 2015 can boast being country with a good dose of innovation and entrepreneurship, although the government has not made it easy for citizens and businesses further enhance this aspect. In Poland, a serious debate is arising on how to adjust the economic model so Polish economy can rely more on innovation and less on the competitiveness provided by low labor and production costs.
Poland has achieved a level of success that has resonated beyond its borders. The EURO 2012 football championships demonstrated to Poland’s fellow European countries, as well as countries around the world, that Poland is a reliable, committed country, ready and able to host and organize successful major events. Moreover, Warsaw has undergone a dramatic transformation and modernization since the fall of the Wall. The city has become a major economic engine for Central Europe. Much like Poland’s economy, Warsaw’s stock market is critical to the region: it handles a greater volume of transactions than Vienna. Unbelievably, Warsaw‘s GDP per capita is already greater than that of Vienna.
But Poland’s achievements do not end there. Krakow now boasts of being one of Europe’s largest tourism destinations. It hosts one of the largest concentrations of outsourcing companies in the word and is Europe’s top location for this industry. The former Polish capital (Yes, son, Krakow used to be Poland’s capital!) is in addition a technological hub, one that is led by companies such as Google, IBM, Cisco and Motorola. In some corners, it is said that Krakow aspires to become Europe’s new Silicon Valley.
Poland now offers great opportunity for foreign direct investment for companies in construction, automotive, renewable energies, logistics, food, wine, hospitality and tourism. Poland has been the largest recipient of EU funds in the EU and will continue to be so until 2020. While many foreign companies have already taken advantage of these opportunities, this country has great potential yet to be unlocked by ambitious investors.

Work in Progress

Polish people celebrating at Euro 2012 
Poland is a country literally and figuratively under construction. While the nation continues to see new and necessary infrastructure blossoming, the country has to finish defining its model of society and development. Poland has to face a great many challenges and reforms in order to reach the Western European countries in many aspects. To do so means overcoming the burden of 45 years of communism and the disastrous consequences of World War II.
As with many European countries, Poland has to address many challenges: social inequality, an unemployment rate of over 11%, and large regional differences. Western Poland’s business landscape is fairly developed, supported by German investments and pro-European areas. Eastern Poland, on the other hand, presents poorer eurosceptic areas suffering from a 20% unemployment rate in some cities.

In addition, the country should strengthen its welfare state, which does not cover the population’s needs. The country suffers from a deficient public healthcare system, a poor, though rapidly improving, transport infrastructure, and a bureaucracy adroit at producing excessive red tape. Other conundrums include major environmental problems such dependence on coal-fired electric plants and social problems such as alcoholism, hooliganism and various racist, extremist and violent groups of supporters linked to Polish football. In spite of this, the problem sitting atop of Poland’s to do list is the high rate of road deaths, which is due to a combination of speeding, alcohol consumption before driving, and ubiquitous dangerous roads.

An evolving society 

The debris of Polish President Lech Kaczyńsk's
Tu-154 aircraft at Smolensk airfield's secured area
The Smolensk air catastrophe in April 2010, in which then-President Lech Kaczyński and numerous high-ranking Polish officials died, to some extent divided and politicized Polish society. At that time, some believed the official version, which leaves many questions about Russia's actions during and after the accident. On the other hand, others believed conspiracy theories promulgated by the conservative party PIS (Law and Justice). This group includes Lech’s surviving twin brother, Jarosław Kaczyński, and media sympathetic to their cause: Radio Maryja, TV Trwam and sometimes even by the rigorous daily Rzeczpospolita. Fortunately, in 2015 this division and politicization is fading; in fact, most Poles now treat politics with disdain. To whit: Poland has one of the lowest voter participation rates in the EU.
Nevertheless, even though Smolensk is no longer a current matter of discussion among Poles, it may in fact occur that it will enter the political agenda again, ahead of the fall 2015 elections cycle .

Moreover, a factor that has had a consistent presence in Polish politics for the past 200 years – distrust of authorities – has not gone away. No wonder, then, that in the 2011 Polish Parliamentary elections voter participation stood at 48%; in the 2014 European Elections, it was 22%. It must be noted, however, that Polish voting regulations can lead to voter hassle: most Poles living in large cities are registered to vote not where they live but in their (probably faraway) villages and towns of origin.

Another component of Polish life that is critical in understanding the country's role is that of the church and family values. Poland is one of the few countries in Europe that continues its long tradition of celebrations, festivities, and events throughout the year, a common feature across most former Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The country presents solid social values and a mainstay value for the family as an institution. The Catholic Church continues to play an important and highly integrated role – though a diminishing – in Poland compared to other Catholic countries. To understand the critical nature of the Church in Poland is to understand the pivotal role Pope John Paul II played in opposing the communist regime role. To this day his legacy remains highly influential in Poland’s social values. His canonization on April 27, 2014 was certainly an event of great significance in Poland.
The Western media’s image of Poland as a very traditional, conservative and Catholic country most likely overstates the reality found throughout the country’s.

Polish Soldiers at the Guard of Honor in Warsaw, Poland
Poland is a country which to some extent – perhaps even on a surface level – has managed to avoid consumerism, materialism, and a deterioration of values that can be seen in parts of Western European society. Above all else, visitors to Poland report Polish people as humble, traditional, patriotic and hardworking. These are people trying to raise their standard of living in a country that has clearly been punished by history. They live their live in the present with intensity. Their historically pessimistic nature is being challenged, however, as their countrymen start to look to the future with optimism. Interestingly, despite the fact that urban Polish society shows features typical of most Protestant countries (especially Anglo-Saxon countries) such as individualism, many Poles are able to unite with each other over a cause when the need arises, or when a common enemy looms.
Both the Warsaw Uprising during World War II and the Solidarity movement in the 1980s present the best historical examples of this trait. Recently, one can observe Poles eager to help when misfortune affects other Poles. We can also cite as an example of this trait the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity. Every January this charity conducts a national fundraiser to raise money to provide hospitals and clinics Poland the latest technology in medical equipment for children, especially infants. The results are laudable, with a majority of Poles in the country, as well as much of Polonia, donating money to support the cause. (NB: Polonia is a English- and Polish-language term for those Poles who live in countries other than Poland.)

The revival of Jewish Poland

Poland's Jewish Identity - A New Revival
Another major focus in Poland in recent years has been a growing interest in the recovery, recognition and revitalization of the country’s Jewish legacy and heritage. One can observe this drive among the country’s institutions and much of Polish society. That this phenomenon is occurring throughout Poland is noteworthy given that only about 20,000 Jews and Poles of Jewish origin live in present-day Poland.
In fact, Warsaw boasts a museum dedicated in 2014 to the 1000-year history of Polish Jews, an institution unparalleled in its scope and focus. Both Kraków and Warsaw organize annual festivals of Jewish culture (the former’s impact can be felt at the national and international levels). Synagogues and Jewish cemeteries are being restored throughout Poland. Kraków’s Kazimierz quarter has evolved into a center for Jewish cultural tourism, gaining international fame after Steven Spielberg filmed the movie Schindler's List on location in Kazimierz in 1993.
We should not forget that prior to the Shoah (another word for the Holocaust), the highest concentration of Jewish population of the world stood in the current territories between eastern Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and western Russia. Most American Jews actually can track their roots to this part of Europe. A whole civilization that was destroyed by Nazi Germany and to a lesser extent by the Stalinist Soviet Union in few years.
Poland today tries to convey a positive image of its 1000-year Jewish past based on a more or less peaceful coexistence between Polish Catholics and Jews. In other words, Poland seeks an image that is not exclusively linked to Poland as a setting and involuntary witness of the Holocaust. Also, not focused on the fact that the country also hosted individuals and political parties with anti-Semitic attitudes during the prewar years, war, institutional anti-Semitism instigated by the communist regime in an anti-Jewish campaign (defined as anti-Zionist by then communist leader Wladislaw Gomulka) of 1968, and on the unfortunately still present social antisemitism (although in clear decline). The aforementioned Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw is the cornerstone of the image that the country wants to display to the world on this matter.
As a matter of fact, Poland can boast being the country with the largest number citizens who have been awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem (over 6,000). Jews and Poles are now increasingly close to a full reconciliation but there are still conflicting points such as the return or compensation for the lost properties by Jews in Poland during the war. On top of that, a negative view of Poland that prevails in some sectors of international Zionism, based largely on historical prejudices and misconceptions on the events in Poland during the Holocaust.

Country of emigration and immigration

Note also that interesting migratory phenomena occur in this country. While thousands of young Poles have in recent years emigrated to Western European countries with higher standards of living and higher salaries: UK, Germany, Austria, Sweden and Norway; at the same time hundreds of young Europeans, especially from the countries hardest hit by the crisis in southern Europe, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece, have chosen to emigrate in Poland. This is because Poland has given them a stable employment and the possibility to develop professionally here, especially in multinational companies in the finance, information technology, marketing, human resources industries.
Poland also experiences a large immigration of Ukrainians-and to a lesser extent Belorussians and Lithuanians-which mostly cover labor needs generated by Polish émigrés. In addition, Poland receives university students from the same countries who prefer to pursue their studies in Polish universities to have a better preparation for future careers in Poland and Western Europe. The war in Ukraine is increasing the figures of migration to Poland significantly. Although Poland does not host Ukrainians as war refugees, it does provide an increasing number of visas to the by far largest minority in Poland.
Because of these migrations, the now decreasing population of Poland, very homogeneous since the Second World War because of Hitler, Stalin, Roosevelt, Truman and Churchill, can regain diversity. This phenomenon can enrich this central European country in different aspects and can compensate the output of Polish professionals to northern Europe.
It is logical to expect in twenty years a more diverse and multicultural Poland than the current one. Maybe a Poland similar to pre-war one: inhabited by large groups of Jewish, Ukrainian, Belorussian and German population; and unlike then also inhabited by Russians, Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians, Spaniards, Italians, Portuguese, Asians and Africans.

Large regional differences

Despite the great ethnic and cultural homogeneity of Poland, if we compare it to many other European states, there are significant regional differences largely marked by historical processes, such as the 123 years of partitions of Poland between Prussia, Russia and Austria.
The economic and industrial development in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century was greater in zones that belonged to Prussia and later Germany. In the territories under the control of the Russian Tsar, there was permanent instability. Current Polish regions that belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire did not enjoy large investments since Vienna considered this far eastern Galicia area far from the Austrian capital was not worth such an effort.

Today while blue-collar workers in eastern Germany migrate to northwestern Poland, some regions in eastern Poland are among the poorest in the EU. The transport infrastructure is still much more developed in western Poland than in the southern and eastern parts of the country as a legacy of the partitions.
The differences between these three areas are also reflected in the mindset of the Poles who live in them. The former Austrian regions (where a fondness for bureaucracy has been inherited) and former Russian areas are generally more traditional, Catholic and politically conservative than the regions in the western side of the country, more liberal, pro-European and less Catholic.
Poland also features regions with a strong ethnic and linguistic identity that are particularly different from the rest of the country, such as Silesia and Kazubia, as well as some mountain areas south of the country inhabited by the so-called "górale" (highlanders). Among these areas, only in Silesia there is a nationalist political movement, which has no great popularity. Poland is today a truly centralized country, where there are almost no discussions on the territorial model since the beginning of democracy in 1989.

Is Poland the future of Europe?

Poland, after 25 years of real independence, democracy and free market economy foresees a future in which it will become an even more prosperous country. However, much remains to be done: the country faces major challenges at a social, demographic and geopolitical level (maintaining security on the eastern flank is crucial). In addition, it has to convince its younger citizens that staying is a better choice than emigration, and must overcome ideological and regional differences (West-East) to maintain unity. Not to mention the need to overcome promptly the domestic political leadership vacuum left by the departure of Donald Tusk to the European Council.
What is at stake for Poland within the next years is belonging to the club of the best in the West, maturing its democracy, consolidating its growing influence in European politics and reaching the wealth levels of its German neighbors. In case it fails, Poland could eventually stagnate as a moderately prosperous post-communist country with little significance in Europe and the world.

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