Part 1 of a two-part series on Poland's rising economy
Tomasz Kasprowicz received a PhD in economics in the US and then
returned to his native Poland for a plum job as a consultant at
McKinsey & Company. In terms of salary and prestige, the position
But ultimately Mr. Kasprowicz decided to take a far less
established path. He quit and started a tiny IT company near Krakow
"I wanted to do what I wanted, which is not possible if you work
full-time at a corporation," says Kasprowicz, a young father dressed
in a checkered button-down shirt and sneakers on a rainy Saturday
afternoon in Krakow.
It's a sentiment that any young, smart, university-educated
person might express. But in a Polish context, it underlines
something new going on here: a sense of optimism in this Central
European nation after decades of isolation from the West and exile
to the periphery of European affairs.
Yes, the economy has radically slowed, showing that the red-hot
growth that made Poland the only European Union nation not to fall
into recession in 2009 is not limitless. Some say Poland has hit a
wall, or will soon, if more is not invested, especially in
innovation and relieving business owners of burdensome bureaucracy.
Polls also show a populace tiring of the center-right party of Prime
Minister Donald Tusk, after his party was the first to be elected
for two consecutive terms since the fall of communism.
But Poles do not seem to have lost faith in their country,
viewing it as a continuing success story within feeble Europe. The
most hopeful even see its rise - alongside other nations of Central
Europe as southern Europe flails - as part of a much bigger
repositioning of continental power.
"Europe has always been totally imbalanced. Europe meant 'Western
Europe,'" says Marcin Piatkowski, an economics professor at
Kozminski University in Poland's capital Warsaw. He says he believes
Poland is entering a "golden age," part of a tectonic shift that is
equalizing power for the first time in modern history.
"We are as close to the 'West' as we've ever been," says Mr.
Piatkowski, sitting in a Warsaw Starbucks downtown, where the Soviet-
era Palace of Culture and Science once loomed lonely over the
skyline but is now accompanied by slick, modern highrises and cranes
A new stage of growth?
Poland's economy has been one of the most robust in Europe. In
2009, it grew by 1.6 percent, while the EU contracted on average 4.5
percent, leading Prime Minister Tusk to declare the country a "green
island" in a sea of red. But Poland's growth rate for this year is
estimated at about 1 percent, and strong growth could peter out, say
critics, if reforms aren't made.
There are many factors that have buoyed Poland's economy in the
past 20 years, and all have natural limits. After the fall of
communism, the 1990s saw insatiable consumption in a population of
38 million. After Poland's accession into the EU in 2004, it
received billions of euros in structural funds to build things such
as new roads and highways. Companies making labor-intensive products
like cars are drawn to Poland's cheap but educated labor force. In
the most recent crisis, the depreciation of the zloty, Poland's
currency, kept exports strong. (Though committed to adopting the
euro eventually, Poland is likely many years away from doing so.)
But consumer demand has slowed, and growth is not sustainable
without a new focus that makes it easier to do business, says Jeremi
Mordasewicz, an economist at the Polish Confederation of Private
Employers, called Lewiatan.
If the first and second "phases" of economic growth were the fall
of communism and Poland's entry into the EU, he says, today the
country needs a "third impulse" to boost growth. "Entrepreneurs are
crucial for us to make the gap smaller between Poland and the rest
of Europe," says Mr. Mordasewicz.
While entrepreneurs were tolerated to a degree in the Soviet era
in Poland, they were still viewed with some distrust. …