Poland these days finds itself a bit like a gangly adolescent on the world stage. With a population of around 40 million people, Poland is by far the biggest of the mainly former Communist countries that joined the European Union in 2004, and it has slowly grown into a kind of regional leader, though the region in question, Eastern Europe, can seldom agree on anything. It's also one of the biggest EU member states overall, just below the most-populous countries of Germany, France, and Britain, but on par with mid-sized countries like Spain. After 40 years of Communist rule, and with just a few short years to hone its Western diplomatic skills, you'd expect a few blunders, and Poland has made its share. But it's also shown itself willing to oppose bigger states to protect its own interests. It went up against Germany a couple of years ago when the Germans wanted to make a separate natural gas deal with Russia and cut Poland out of the picture. It's also gone up against France several times, most vocally to get France to open up its labor market to Polish workers. And it defied the EU as a whole on several occasions, famously siding with the U.S. in the Iraq war, over French objections, and agreeing to host part of a U.S. anti-missile battery aimed at defending the U.S. and Europe against rockets fired from Iran. That project was later cancelled by the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, but Poland's decision to back the U.S. cemented the country's reputation as arguably the strongest U.S. ally on the European continent.
Poland suffered a tremendous setback in April 2010 when a tragic plane crash in Russia took the lives of Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and more than 90 other Polish leaders and dignitaries. The officials were on their way to commemorate the anniversary of the slaughter of thousands of Polish military officers by the Soviet Union at Katyn in 1940. The fatal crash, not far from the Katyn site, was painfully reminiscent of that original tragedy, cementing forever in Poles' minds the view of Katyn as "that cursed place."
If there's a bright side to such an epic tragedy, it might be in the way the plane crash served to pull Poles together from all points of the political spectrum. While there was considerable controversy over the decision to bury the right-wing Kaczynski and his wife at Kraków's fabled Wawel Castle, there was also a palpable feeling of a shared national tragedy and the need to work together to heal divisions. Given Poland's fragmented politics, it's hard to say how long this warm, fuzzy feeling will last, but it's fair to point out that Poland survived the crash, and the loss of staggering number of leaders and politicians, without skipping a beat, and that's a considerable achievement.
As with many of the new Eastern European democracies in the years following the fall of Communism in 1989, Poland has lurched rightward and leftward over the years without really establishing any firm political framework.
In the immediate aftermath of the fall of Communism, the country was led by former Solidarity leader Lech Waesa. Waesa's presidency was marked by back-biting, infighting, and a splintering of the party system to such an extent that governing proved practically impossible. Voters then surprisingly opted for a former Communist, Aleksander Kwasniewski. Kwasniewski's rule brought unexpected stability and political progress, though in time gave way to the right-wing government of the late Lech Kaczynski and renewed bickering. In July 2010, Polish voters elected center-right candidate Bronisaw Komorowski to succeed Kaczynski as president in an election widely praised for showing the country's growing political maturity.
Luckily for Poles, this lack of political stability has not seemed to harm economic development. Indeed, even as the global economic crisis was bearing down on Europe in 2009 and 2010, the Polish economy continued to buck the trend. Whereas most national economies in Europe went into a recession in 2009, Poland actually experienced modest growth that year and the economy expanded again in 2010. Poland's currency, the zoty, has declined modestly in value with respect to the U.S. dollar but, as we were going to press, had managed to avoid the precipitous drop of the EU's common currency, the euro (and Polish efforts to adapt the euro have been put on the back burner for several years to come).
The rising economy continues a trend that began some 2 decades ago as Poland began to pull itself out of an economic collapse caused by a catastrophic World War and 4 decades of incompetent Communist rule. Communism bequeathed to Poland some of the European continent's lowest living standards. Now, young Poles can realistically look forward to a time in their lifetimes when wages and living standards begin to approximate Western Europe.
To be sure, in spite of the economic progress over the past 20 years, you'll still run across many depressed areas -- particularly in industrial cities such as Lódz and in large parts of Warsaw itself. You'll also see greater numbers than you might expect of homeless people, public drunks, beggars, and those who have simply fallen through the cracks. Not everyone has benefited equally from the country's rapid transformation to a democratic political system and a free-market economy. Industrial workers, particularly those over the age of 50, for whom adapting to the changes proved more difficult, have been hardest hit.
Young people, too, have found it difficult to cope with ever-rising living costs on very low wages. Many have left the country for places like the U.K. and Ireland, where they can earn more tending bar than they can working as young professionals at home.
But it's important to put this into perspective. Just 20 years ago, Poland was literally falling apart. The country was $30 billion in debt to international lenders. The air was unbreathable, particularly in Kraków, downwind from the enormous steel mill complex at Nowa Huta. It wasn't unusual for Poles to spend hours standing in line simply to buy a piece of fruit or a bottle of imported shampoo. And membership in the European Union was unthinkable. Worst of all, perhaps, was the feeling of utter hopelessness, as if it were somehow Poland's fate to end up on the wrong side of history every time. That's been replaced by something better and infectious: a cautious optimism that maybe this time around the good times are here to stay.