Focus on Poland

By Spruyt, Jillian; Baker, Howard Butlin et al. | Geographical, February 1998 | Go to article overview

Focus on Poland

Spruyt, Jillian, Baker, Howard Butlin, Glynn, Noel, Geographical


After many years of Soviet domination the Republic of Poland is learning to live and laugh again

The Polish Republic and its centralised planned system, now undergoing rapid transition to a market economy was born from the ashes of the Second World War and is based on mineral resources, agriculture and a high standard of education and training which has enabled the manufacturing industry to flourish. Situated in the heart of Europe, it also forms a trade bridge between the West and the former Soviet Union.

Bituminous coal tops the list of mineral resources, followed by sulphur, zinc, lead, copper and nickel. Agriculture consists mainly of small private family land-holdings producing rye, potatoes, wheat, sugar beet, barley and oats. The manufacturing sector is dominated by large state-owned factories, but small independent firms are springing up fast and the private sector now produces more than half of GDP.

Major manufactured products are steel, fertilisers, sulphuric acid, industrial machinery, ships, railway carriages and motor vehicles.

High unemployment followed the collapse of communism, peaking at 32 per cent in 1994 when the average wage was $300 per month. Foreign debt used to be huge, reaching $46.5 billion in 1991 when Western lenders wrote off half the money owing. But today the economy is booming. In 1995 the US included it on a list of the 10 most promising emerging markets, while the German national bank classified it on a par with the Tiger economies of the Far East.

Poland is a parliamentary republic with a president elected every five years who nominates the prime minister. The parliament consists of a 460 seat lower house, the Sejm, and a 100 seat senate. Both are elected by universal adult suffrage. The country of 39 million people is divided into 49 provinces.

Political life was reborn after the First World War when the fledgling republic experimented with parliamentary democracy. The emergent republic was created largely by General Josef Pilsudski, leader of the Polish Socialist Party and organiser of an underground private army of 10,000 men. Released from imprisonment by the Germans he declared independence in November 1918.

The economy of the earlier Polish kingdom had traditionally been stifled by Prussian control of the Baltic coast, but the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 awarded Pilsudski the western part of Prussia, providing access to the Baltic Sea. Versailles also led to the acquisition by plebiscite of the rich coalfields of Upper Silesia.

Not content with these triumphs, Pilsudski made war on the Russian Red Army in 1919-20 and extended Poland deep into Belarus and the Ukraine. The result was a Polish republic with a third of the population consisting of ethnic minorities, mainly Jews, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Germans.

The coastline was greatly extended from Gdansk to Sczettin after the Second World War, and the subsequent acceptance of dictatorial communist rule was partly because there had been no successful national experience of democracy. Pilsudski had resigned as head of state in 1922, but impatient with the infant parliamentary democracy staged a military coup in 1926 becoming a virtual dictator until his death in 1935.

Reconstructed after the First World War, the economy was again destroyed by the Second World War which left the capital in ruins after the Jewish ghetto resistance in 1943 and the 1945 Warsaw uprising. Indeed most major cities were destroyed and the replicated historic town centres today are uncharacteristic of the original buildings. The unattractive reconstruction is visible everywhere. Huge poorly-built blocks of flats, products of the need to house the population quickly without concern for quality, durability and aesthetics, are symptomatic of most urban residential areas.

The current transition to a market economy was given a head start over other former communist countries in Eastern Europe because in Poland the planned economy was not all-encompassing.

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