Poland has made tremendous progress in the past 20 years. In the early 90s, gross domestic product per capita was less than 40% of the European Union’s average. Today it stands at around 56%.
June 4, 2009 marked a historic and momentous occasion for Poland. It was on this day 20 years ago that the Eastern European country held its first post-war partially-free democratic elections, marking the beginning of the end of communism in the region. It was to be a new era in Europe – weakening the Soviet Union’s hold on Eastern Europe, and precipitating the fall of the Berlin Wall just five months later.
Celebrations marking the occasion took place in three Polish cities – Warsaw, Krakow, and Gdansk. In Gdansk, the city on the edge of the Baltic Sea, where it all began with the ‘Solidarity’ trade union movement in 1980, tensions and memories still run high. With the Polish economy struggling in the wake of the global financial crisis, workers in Gdansk gathered to protest against layoffs and rising unemployment. Even the historic and significant anniversary could not mask the growing frustration in Gdansk over the rising jobless rate, an increasing number of distressed companies, and the sheer weight of trying to rescue an economy in a region where most countries are in recession. The possibility of large scale protests forced Prime Minister Donald Tusk to move some of the 20th anniversary celebrations from Gdansk to Krakow.
Yet, the occasion does highlight the fact that the nation has fought its way through every crisis. The events of 1989 go down in history as one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century. Having won political freedom and becoming in the process the first nation under the ‘iron curtain’ to do so, Poland faced an immediate challenge – the transition from a centrally planned economy to a market economy. But Poland did what no other country was able to do until then. It managed the transition remarkably well.
Over the past 20 years, Poland not only built a free market economy, but one that grew at a rate of close to 7% in 2007. And 2009 may be a watershed year for the steely country. In fact, World Bank Chief Economist Justin Yifu Lin believes that increased government spending may allow Poland to be one of the best performing economies in the world after the first quarter of 2009. Poland is projected to be the only country in the EU10 to register growth this year while neighboring Hungary, Romania, and the Czech Republic are expected to contract as much as 6%, 2% and 1.5% respectively. Poland has undergone a remarkable transformation, and perhaps, the co-founder of the Solidarity movement, Lech Walesa, said it best: “We managed to end an era of divisions, mistakes and confrontation.” For that, the people of Poland, and those of Europe, are thankful.
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