WARSAW–Polish President Bronisław Komorowski has announced Freedom Year to mark a quarter-century of Poland’s regained independence. The event was kicked off with a nationally televised presidential pep talk extolling Free Poland’s achievements since 1989, and plenty of documentary footage recalling the country’s road to freedom. And in what was called a Solidarity Olympiade, some 3,000 students from 432 schools around the country demonstrated their knowledge of Poland’s recent history.
Rather than starting on January 1, Poland’s Freedom Year is to run until June 4, 2014, marking 25 years to the day when Poles voted to put an end to the Soviet-style communist rule. As part of a round-table deal thrashed out between Poland’s communist rulers and the Solidarity-led opposition, partially democratic elections were held in which Lech Walesa’s Citizens Committees won all they were permitted (35%) in the Sejm (lower house) and 99% of the freely contested Senate.
General euphoria swept the land as thousands of Poles triumphantly marched through the streets in victory parades, waving Polish flags and Solidarity banners. In September 1989, Catholic journalist Tadeusz Mazowiecki became post-war Poland’s first non-communist prime minister. A year later, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa was elected president.
But the general enthusiasm soon began petering out when it became apparent that the anticipated “freedom and prosperity” did not necessarily go hand in hand. Consumer abundance soon emerged, as new supermarkets and discount stores tempted shoppers with modern, glittery goods – a far cry from the empty store shelves and long lines of the communist era. But after a shock-therapy economic reform slashed the Poles’ purchasing power in the early 1990s, most had only enough cash for the bare necessities.
Pol-Ams visiting Poland after a long break have generally been quite impressed by what they see. Polish big cities display an aura of modernity and pizzazz comparable to that of other world cities. There are modern shopping malls with large chain stores and trendy boutiques, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and other well-known establishments. There are gourmet restaurants and fashionable cafés, American-style bowling alleys and even clean public restrooms, the lack of which was once a common tourist complaint. But when Pol-Am visitors sit down and chat with their Old Country cousins, they soon learn things are not quite as rosy as they may seem.
A major problem Poles had never experienced earlier is unemployment. The sell-out of unprofitable state-owned factories to private, mainly foreign business, deprived many of secure, lifelong jobs. The unemployment rate reached 20% in 2002-2003, but even now stands at an alarming 14%. In small towns and rural areas as well as in certain groups such as recent college graduates, it is even higher. And, it would be worse still if the some two million Poles now working in the British Isles and elsewhere were to suddenly return.
An important gain of Free Poland has been the freedom to travel. Under communism, Poles had to apply for permission to travel abroad and the authorities decided whether to give them their passport which was kept at a government office. Now every Pole has the right to keep his passport at home, which isn’t even needed to freely travel to other European Union countries.
Most Poles support Poland’s EU membership for the financial aid that has provided, but many complain the bloc’s Brussels headquarters interferes too much in Poland’s internal affairs. Though a milestone that nearly all Poles are in favor of has been their country’s membership in NATO, which it joined in 1999. There is general agreement that the country has never been so secure in its more than 1,000-year history. Historic foes Germany and Russia no longer pose a threat under the protective Euro-Atlantic umbrella.
The country has had its ups and downs since 1989. Like most everywhere else, there have been violent street protests, scandals and scams. Poland’s political scene has traditionally been a rough and tumble affair, and the 2010 Smolensk air disaster that killed Poland’s First Couple and 94 other mostly prominent political and military leaders has polarized public opinion like no other single issue.
But when all is said and done, a recent opinion poll has shown that 75% of those surveyed were satisfied that Poland was no longer a communist country, down from 83% three years ago. Many observers believe that some of the 25% who now claim things were better under communist rule would not really want to go back if that were possible. Mainly, they are venting their frustration with the economic crisis, unemployment, high prices, a deteriorating healthcare system and other shortcomings of daily life.
Source: Robert Strybel, Warsaw Correspondent