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Capital: Warsaw, 1,687,628 inhabitants (forward projection 2005)
Population: 38,230,100 (2002 census)
Ethnic composition: 98.7 percent Poles; national minorities: 300,000 to 500,000 Germans, 300,000 Ukrainians; 200,000 Belarusians
Area: 312 square kilometers
Gross Domestic Product: 209.6 billion US dollars (2003)
GDP per Capita: 5,486 US dollars (2003)


Ghosts from the Past

The period of communist rule in Poland reveals a series of distinctive features relative to other socialist states. Noteworthy examples include the early abandonment of forced collectivization of agriculture (1956), the considerable influence of the Catholic Church, and the strength of its opposition movements.1  Already in the 1970s the People’s Republic of Poland was struggling with an economic crisis, which, over the course of the decade, increasingly became a political crisis as well. By the early 1980s the Solidarność (Solidarity) movement had grown to the point where it threatened to explode the system. In order to save the regime and to avert a threatened intervention by Soviet troops, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, who at the time was head of the government and the Communist Party as well as defense minister and commander in chief, declared martial law on December 13, 1981. This measure also served as a way of pushing through an economic program of austerity measures. It proved possible to reestablish the dominant order, but the economic reforms failed, not least because a social consensus was lacking. The military regime was ultimately forced to take up "round table" negotiations with members of Solidarność, even though it had been banned in the meanwhile, in order to find a way out of the economic and political crisis.

The Catholic Church, which was at the height of its social acceptance, played a crucial role as a mediator. In April 1989 Solidarność was once again permitted as a trade union, and the office of president, which had been eliminated in 1952, was reestablished. The president was to be elected by a national assembly and would have a strong constitutional position. On June 4, 1989, the elections to which both sides had agreed were held, and there was a landslide victory for the opposition. Shortly thereafter, in view of the existing power relationships, Jaruzelski was named president, and he charged Tadeusz Mazowiecki, one of Solidarność leader’s Lech Wałęsa’s advisers, with the task of forming a government. The year 1990 marked the conclusion of the change of system in terms of foreign policy as well: on November 14 Germany finally recognized the Oder-Neisse line2  as the national border.

Unstable Spectrum of Parties

The political system of postsocialist Poland reveals several characteristic features. For example, there is a strong dualism between the former representatives and the opponents of the old ruling order. Although the tremendous influence of the Catholic Church declined over the course of the 1990s, it continues to be a major power factor. The landscape of parties is marked by considerable heterogeneity and instability: mergers, renaming, and new parties are the order of the day. Between 1989 and 1999 alone, there were no fewer than eight heads of government. The consistently high rate of nonvoters is also noteworthy, as it points to a profound alienation from the political class. Only 40 percent of the voters participated in the 2005 elections.

The first free elections did not take place until 1991. In the meanwhile the communists had dissolved their party and founded the Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland (SdRP). Thanks to an electoral system that favored small parties, nineteen groups made the leap into the Sejm (parliament). The strongest force was the Democratic Union, which emerged from the liberal wing of Solidarność, with just 13 percent of the vote. The formation of a center-right coalition proved correspondingly difficult. This phase was marked by an effort to push through a radical neoliberal program that met with increasing public protest. The Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), under the leadership of the SdRP, emerged the victor of early elections in September 1993. It formed a governing coalition with the Polish Peasant Party (PSL), a former bloc party of the People’s Republic. The PSL’s program stands for an agricultural policy that maintains existing structures. The SLD used its power in government to provide members of the old nomenklatura with key positions in the state and economy once again. At the same time, the previous market radicalism was replaced by a "state capitalist" policy of intervention.

The role of the head of state was politically contentious. When Jaruzelski asked for his term in office to be reduced, shortly after he was named president in September 1989, Lech Wałęsa was elected his successor in December 1990 by a large majority. Under Wałęsa’s aegis, there were constant conflicts between the government and the Sejm. He blocked important laws and delayed appointments of ministers he did not like. Wałęsa justified his highhanded political style by reference to his contribution to history. The next presidential elections in 1995 were won by the SLD candidate, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, by a slight margin. He pushed through a new constitution in 1997 that reduced the authority of the head of state in favor of the parliament. As a result of his popularity he was reelected president on October 8, 2000.

The conservative Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) pushed the SLD into the opposition in the 1997 elections for the Sejm, but the SLD returned to govern in 2001 in a coalition with the Polish Peasant Party. It was, however, discredited in the years that followed by series of corruption scandals. The elections in September 2005 thus resulted in an overwhelming victory for the right-wing camp, and the complete marginalization of the SLD (10.9 percent). The nationalist-conservative party Law and Justice (PiS) received 26.8 percent; the liberal-conservative Civic Platform (PO), 24.2 percent. These two parties, which had been formed from the disintegrating AWS in 2001, turned into a kind of civil rights movement. The protest party Self-Defense of the Republic of Poland (11.7 percent) and the nationalist-clerical League of Polish Families (7.4 percent) also came to the fore in that election. A crucial factor in these results was the expectation of many voters that the right-wing parties would combat the corrupt collusion of business and politics more forcefully. Whereas the liberal-conservative PO would like to unleash market forces through further deregulation measures, combating the unions, and simplifying the tax system, the PiS, which is oriented more around Catholic and conservative values, is calling for greater social commitment with public resources. With its "moral revolution," which is aimed as much against homosexuality as against criminality and corruption, the populist party seems to have struck a chord in Poland.

The Sensitive German-Polish Relationship

In contrast to its joining of NATO in 1999, which met with broad approval in society, certain parties articulated a clear anti-European skepticism in the runup to Poland’s becoming a member of the EU. It was not just the Polish Peasant Party and Self-Defense that rejected the European Union at the time, but also the groups around what had once been the conservative wing of Solidarność. The Catholic episcopate provided the movement’s slogans with its warnings against the influences of the "permissive society" of western Europe and the "loss of Polish values." Only under pressure from the Vatican did the Church drop its anti-European propaganda. After arduous negotiations with the European Union, the leftist Polish government managed to obtain an increase in European direct aid payments to Polish farmers, in response to widespread public skepticism. In comparison to earlier rounds of negotiation on EU enlargement, however, Poland had relatively little free play to advance its own interests. By December 13, 2002, the conclusion of the membership talks for Poland and a series of other eastern European states was announced in Copenhagen. Germany and Austria had obtained particularly restrictive rules for the transition, in the face of the "free movement of labor"3  in the EU. Following the signing of the membership documents on April 16, 2003, there was a referendum in Poland on June 7 and 8, 2003, in which 77.5 percent voted for the European Union. On May 1, 2004, the country finally joined the EU.

Since that election EU membership is no longer called into question by the nationalist-conservative forces, but the relationship between Warsaw and Berlin, which had been difficult enough, is being subjected to a new test. Associations of people of German heritage who had been expelled from Poland after World War Two used the occasion of Poland’s entry into the EU to call for the application of the European Convention on Human Rights. As EU citizens, those exiled could sue Poland in the European Court of Justice for injustices committed immediately after the war. Reacting to such ideas, the twin brothers Jarosław and Lech Kaczyński, who head the PiS, managed to get a unanimous vote in parliament on September 10, 2004, calling for the Polish government to take up negotiations on German reparations payments.4  An announcement in September 2005 by the German legal consulting company Preußische Treuhand that it wanted to compel by legal means the return of real estate in Germany’s former eastern territories has provided additional impetus to such demands. Another bone of contention is the Center against Exile planned in Berlin. From the Polish point of view, the project represents a revisionist attempt to portray Germany not as the culprit but as the victim of World War Two. The planned natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany that is intended to run through the Baltic Sea, and hence would have to cross Poland, has provoked the PiS to make comparisons to the Hitler-Stalin Pact.5  Polish society has a historically grounded fear of Russian-German collaborations.

Unleashing Market Forces

Under the first noncommunist government, in the face of an extremely precarious economic situation, a neoliberal "shock therapy" crystallized. Poland played a pioneering role within eastern Europe in this as well. The program included a liberalization of the economy both domestically and internationally, a far-reaching convertibility of the currency, and the introduction of privatization. This shock therapy could be supported with a certain economic basis. Already by 1990 private economic activities were contributing 30 percent to the gross domestic product. The main protagonists behind this new course included both the domestic reform elites and international financial institutions. Because the Polish government needed immediate loans and was seeking debt relief, it agreed to the neoliberal revitalization ideas that had been forced on debtor nations from the "Third World" since the 1980s. Poland did indeed receive relief from most of its debts.

The radical program stabilized the economy and soon initiated economic growth. The social costs, however, were high: the standard of living dropped, unemployment increased, and real wages declined by more than a quarter. In the mid-1990s about a quarter of the population was living below the poverty line as defined by the government.

The privatization of the public sector proceeded more slowly than it did in other postsocialist countries. Whereas the nomenklatura had profited from the privatization process that began in the late 1980s, thanks to their key positions in the economy, the majority of Solidarność’s leadership and the vast majority of the population rejected this model of insider privatization, of a sort that had been typical in Russia, as illegitimate gains by the old ruling elites. But the neoliberal reform elite was equally willing to consider a mass privatization of state-owned companies because it feared a blockade of the radical revitalization program by the employees, who as partial owners would have had opportunities to appeal it. As a result of the unstable governments as well, the selling off of state property to foreign investors proceeded only haltingly.

A second phase of neoliberal restructuring was only introduced after 1997, under the post-Solidarność government. It not only privatized a series of companies owned in whole or part by the state but also set in motion a reform of the health and social security systems. The primary goal was to reduce social welfare contributions. The privatization or closing of former state companies in the 1990s had placed enormous strains on the pension system. The various Polish governments tried to cushion the continuing mass layoffs with a policy for early retirement. That reduced the number of contributors to the system, while the number of those drawing pensions rose. To balance this, in 1997-98 the Sejm passed a model for providing for the elderly that combined the state contribution system with private pension funds. Nevertheless, expenditures for pensions remain high even after the reform, in no small measure because of payments for disability insurance. State disability assistance is presently paid to 13 percent of the employable population.

Decoupling of Growth and Employment

In the meanwhile the privatization process has made great progress. The private economy accounted for 71.7 percent of the gross domestic product in 2002.

Problems for Poland’s economic policies include a high budget deficit and the restructuring of agriculture that is currently on the agenda. Agriculture contributes only 3 percent to the gross domestic product but employs 20 percent of Polish workers. Contrary to their previous fears, at first glance it would appear that farmers number among the beneficiaries of EU enlargement, thanks to higher prices, increasing demand from abroad, and direct assistance from Brussels. The overwhelming majority of Polish agriculture is composed of small to tiny farms of less than 10 hectares. Their number will be considerably reduced as a consequence of the opening of the markets and the associated efficiency and modernization measures. If large numbers of workers in the primary sector are let go, there could be another rise in the employment rate, which has already been high for a long time; in 2004 the figure was 19.2 percent. The low figure for employable persons on the Polish labor market (45 percent in 2004) is explained in part by the fact that the majority of those freed up by early retirement have pursued activity in the underground economy as a result of their precarious economic circumstances. Poland’s per capita income was just 46 percent of the EU average in 2003. That makes Poland the second-poorest country in the European Union. Wages are correspondingly low. At 530 euros (2003) the average monthly gross income was higher than that of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, but well under the German level.

Although Poland’s economy is considered one of the most dynamic in the European Union, with economic growth of 5.4 percent in 2004, this economic upturn is only felt in the larger cities. Structurally weak rural regions, like northeastern Poland, continue to stagnate. The decoupling of growth and employment poses a structural problem for the Polish economy, but the continuing boom shows that the competitiveness of its domestic industries on the world market has improved. In addition, direct foreign investments increased 23 percent in 2004, with Germany ranking fourth among the investors. Although industry contributed only 20.8 percent of gross domestic product in 2002, that number is currently increasing. The situation of the crisis-ridden coal and steel industry has improved thanks to Chinese demand and a boom in the markets for raw materials. The increase in exports led to a reduction in the trade deficit (2003: 5.73 billion US dollars). More than 80 percent of Polish exports went to the EU in 2004, and Germany (30.7 percent) is by far the most important buyer. Similarly, 70 percent of Poland’s imports are from the European Union, and here too the Federal Republic of Germany (24.6 percent) is top of the list.

The Battle of Two Lines

Even during the preparations for Poland’s joining the EU, the European Commission noted deficiencies in terms of the freedom of the press in the state media. The current governing majority and the president determine not only the composition of the supervisory boards and the editors in chief but also the posts of the political editors. In contrast to France or Great Britain, where the management levels of the broadcasters are also filled by the government in power, in Poland the entire editorial boards are replaced following a change in administration.

The planned liberalization of the broadcasting law, which until now has prohibited newspaper companies from owning shares in large private television broadcasters, led to a media and corruption scandal in 2002. The famous Polish film producer and Oscar-winner Lew Rywin (Schindler’s List, The Pianist) attempted, probably on the order of the SLD government then in power, to arrange for the Polish media company Agora to buy shares in the commercial television channel Polsat, in exchange for slush money totaling 17.5 million US dollars.

In the run-up to the 2005 elections, a power struggle broke out between the SLD-friendly supervisory board of the public television station TVP and the liberal-conservative-leaning director-general over control of the most important Polish media outlet. The victory of the right-wing camp in 2005 will thus probably lead to far-reaching changes of personnel and content.

Another distinctive feature is the diversity of radio and television broadcasters associated with the Catholic Church. A special role in this is played by the media empire of Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, who runs Radio Maryja with the support of a fundamentalist order. The station, which reaches as many as five million listeners a day, stands out for its nationalist and anti-Semitic program.

The Polish print media are dominated by foreign publishing companies. German companies like Springer, Bertelsmann, Burda, and the Passau publishing group play a prominent role. The Springer-Verlag in particular is building on its commitment to Polish newspapers. With Fakt, the daily newspaper with the largest circulation (500,000 copies) it is creating difficulties for Gazeta Wyborcza, a paper from the liberal circles around Solidarność.


1 Following violent mass demonstrations in 1956, Poland underwent a ”thaw,” though it only lasted two years. Then the Party leader Władysław Gomułka set an authoritarian course again. Faced with serious social unrest in December 1970, however, he was forced to resign. In 1976 the regime tried to curb grown consumer demand by raising prices. The workers responded, as they had in the past, with strikes and demonstrations. The wave of repression that followed led a number of intellectuals to found the Workers’ Defense Committee. This group of dissidents trigged an opposition movement that was considered unique in the Eastern Bloc for its breadth. Resistance to the system gained additional impetus when the archbishop of Kraków, Karol Wojtyla, was elected Pope John Paul II. In summer 1980 many more strikes broke out. This was the birth of Solidarność, which saw itself as an umbrella organization for the unions as well as a gathering point for oppositional political forces. Lech Wałęsa, a worker from the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk, was elected its first chair. [zurück]

2 At the Conference of Teheran (November 28 to December 1, 1943) Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Josef Stalin agreed in principle that the eastern parts of Poland would cede to the Soviet Union and Poland’s border would be shifted westward at the expense of the German Reich. At the Yalta Conference (February 2-11, 1945) the three great powers established Polish-Soviet border, which corresponded roughly to the demarcation lines of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. In the Potsdam Agreement (August 2, 1945) the Allied powers agreed on the Oder-Neisse line as Poland’s provisional western border and placed the regions to the east of it, which corresponded to the borders of the German Reich from 1937, under provisional Polish administration. All of the Germans living there were to be relocated. That decision demonstrates that the new border was by no means intended to be provisional, even if its final determination was left to a later peace conference. By the end of 1950 an estimated 8.5 million Germans had to leave the former eastern provinces and Poland. The nonaggression treaty signed in 1970 by Germany and Poland contained the proviso that the Federal Republic of Germany was only recognizing the Oder-Neisse border temporarily. According to Bonn’s understanding of the law, the German Reich that had been defeated in 1945 continued to exist with its 1937 borders. [zurück]

3 In terms of the "free movement of labor," during the first two years after joining the EU the respective national laws of older members governing residence and work permits will maintained. This transitional restriction generally ends after five years, but in several member states only after seven years. In Poland’s case, shuttle migration has existed since the 1990s. It is estimated that a million workers go abroad temporarily in search of work, primarily in Germany. [zurück]

4 In the London Debt Agreement of 1953 the Bonn government succeeded in getting a long-term postponement of reparations payments for World War Two. The existing demands of affected states were adjourned until the conclusion of a pending peace treaty. Subsequently, the government of the Federal Republic of Germany always distinguished between reparation costs as a result of war damages and obligations to pay amends for National Socialist crimes. With regard to Poland, the Federal Republic of Germany reserved the right to address pending reparations payments with its own demands resulting from the exile and expropriation of German citizens. With German unification in 1990, the deadline for the payment of reparations, which until then had remained a fiction, took on real form. It was in the interest of the government of the Federal Republic to prevent a formal peace treaty so that it would not have to fulfill the demands of creditor nations. In 1990, with the so-called Two Plus Four Treaty—between the former victorious powers on the one hand, and the BRD and the GDR, on the other—Germany succeeded in avoiding this problem being put down in writing. Fifty years after the war, then Federal Chancellor Helmut Kohl stated, one should not open up old invoices. Nevertheless, he used the restitution demands of the associations of those who had been expelled from Poland after the Second World War as countermeasures in negotiations with Poland. Ultimately, in an exchange of notes the Federal Republic declared itself prepared to make a "gesture." Its eastern neighbor received 500 million German marks for the "victims of National Socialist persecution" and agreed for its part not to make any further claims. In return, Germany renounced a territory that it had already lost to Poland in 1945, as a consequence of the fascist war of extermination. [zurück]

5 On August 23, 1939, the foreign ministers Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, later known to history as the Hitler-Stalin Pact. In a secret protocol, western Poland and Lithuania were included in the German sphere of interest; Finland, Estonia, Latvia, eastern Poland, and Bessarabia were included in the Soviet sphere of influence. In another amendment to the treaty from September 28, 1939, Lithuania was included in the Russian sphere of influence, in exchange for parts of Poland. After German troops invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and defeated it militarily within a few weeks, the two great powers divided their spoils. The Soviet authorities deported 1.5 million Poles in their region to Siberia and Kazakhstan. The German Reich included large parts of Poland within its own territory. Those living there were categorized according to criteria of "race" and the section of the population that had been classified as "Slavic" was exiled. Central Poland was assigned the status of a "General Government" and soon became the stage for experiments with Germany’s occupation policies: the calculated liquidation of the political and cultural elite, deliberate massacres of the civilian population, massive recruiting of forced laborers, the plundering of the resources, and systematic murder of Jews. An estimated 5.7 million people died during the German occupation. [zurück]