WARSAW, Poland -
Michal Ruminski was 6 when his father took him through a local
supermarket here. The store shelves were empty, except for some
bottles of vinegar, but that was precisely the point. His father
wanted the young boy never to forget the deprivations of living in
a backward communist state.
Today, streets once patrolled by soldiers and armored vehicles
now team with trendy cafes and tiny boutiques, not to mention
grocery stores nearly bursting.
Mr. Ruminski, 39, a managing partner of a venture capital firm,
can provide his wife and his own 6-year old son all the comforts of
life. Their family vacations have included Africa, Turkey and the
More than three decades have passed since a strike at a Gdansk
shipyard touched off a regional revolution, leading to 18 months of
martial law in Poland and setting the stage for the eventual
collapse of communism.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Poland and its
neighboring Soviet states underwent a historic shift, embracing
democracy and a market-based economy. Since then, Central Europe
has been transformed by those political and economic reforms. And
no former Soviet bloc nation has shined as brightly as Poland.
Poland's economy typically grew 4 percent to 5 percent a year.
Even in the midst of the worldwide recession in 2009, the nation
pushed ahead with growth of nearly 2 percent.
Now, however, Poland's economy, like that of its neighbors, has
slowed. It faces many of the same problems bedeviling Western
Europe and the United States - chronically high unemployment, aging
populations and a sense of losing its way on the road to greater
The Polish government is considering an overhaul of the nation's
educational system, moving away from a U.S.-style focus on general
studies to more of a German model emphasizing apprenticeships and
And Poland is making efforts, with European Union support, to
modernize a transportation network that hasn't been upgraded since
its days as a Soviet state.
Ryszard Petru, an energetic, widely known economist here,
ruefully talks about his frequent trips to Wroclaw, a major
industrial and cultural hub about 225 miles from Warsaw. "It takes
five hours or longer by train and car; should be three hours," he
said, speaking in fluent English. Though it's expensive, Mr. Petru
said, he now has to resort to flying.
Whether Poland can keep up its success matters to the U.S., and
not just because Americans like the imported Polish hams.
Long a key NATO member, Poland has been one of only a few allies
that over the years has met or come close to the target of military
spending of 2 percent of its overall economy. Given its location
bordering politically volatile neighbors in Eastern Europe,
Poland's stable democratic government plays an influential role in
less-developed countries such as Ukraine and Belarus.
Poland's importance has increased as it has grown to become, by
some measures, the sixth-largest economy in Europe, ahead of
Belgium and Austria.
In a visit to Warsaw last week, Secretary of State John Kerry
compared Poland's rapid rise to the economic rebirth of South
Korea. He said he was looking to Poland to help the U.S. and the EU
forge a trade pact, something that both sides said could sharply
increase the flow of goods and investment. …