Poland’s Transition into a New Millenium

Poland’s Transition into a New Millenium

This review is a personal interpretation of the book Poland into the New Millennium, by Blazyca, G. and Rapacki, R.; Cheltenham: Edward Elgar 2001.

With over a decade’s experience of transition this edited volume engages with the dynamics of systemic change in Poland. Since 1989 Poland has been frequently regarded as one of the more ‘successful’ transformations with soubriquets such as the ‘soaring Polish eagle’ readily applied. However, Poland into the New Millennium charts a more tentative line than the rhetoric of capitalist triumphalism. The volume discusses three main issues. First, the impact of a decade of transition; many of the contributors have been involved in the process as activists or politicians and not just commentators from the sidelines. Second, the book evaluates where Poland is now, with some dispute between the various chapters. Finally, contributors address the possible future trajectory of transition Poland.

Containing fourteen substantive chapters, the volume is divided into three sections. The first section, Political Economy, Society and Politics, benefits from the inclusion of a chapter by new Finance Minister Marek Belka, indicating where future economic policy might lead in his rejection of virulent neo-liberalism and instead emphasising the necessity for social cohesion. Tadeusz Kowalik’s chapter offers a more circumspect analysis of transition. He gives prominence to the losers rather than the winners of transition, decrying the emergent ‘crony capitalism’ (44). Wnuk-Lipinski offers a longer historical investigation of the changes in Poland, highlighting processes initiated in the 1970s to compare the disjuncture between the ‘social geography’ (67) of support between pre and post 1989 Solidarity. The fourth chapter by Pankow and Gaciarz explores the role of trade unions in contemporary industrial relations. Ironically, in the land of Solidarity they observe that the trade union has become a weakened institution lacking respect from worker and management alike. The final chapter by Aleks Szczerbiak unravels the complexities of the partial consolidation of party politics. His lucid outline of the diverse orientations in party politics illustrates the dominant role played by values rather than group interests in forming political identity.

Section two, Economic Performance, Institutional and Sectoral Transformations, commences with Rapacki’s detailed chapter on Polish GDP developments since 1990. This is an excellent collection of the relevant data but one that raises many questions as to the future competitiveness of the Polish economy. Jan Macieja also notes the emergence of crony capitalism but implicates state interference as the source. His solution is even more liberalisation and deregulation. Gorski’s chapter on the financial sector in the 1990s provides a useful survey of changes in banking and the activities of foreign capital. It complements neatly the following chapter on pension reform by Marek Gora. However, both accept the neo-liberal line and provide striking examples of Polish attempts to exceed even the wishes of the IMF for reform. The last two chapters in this section explore regional policy (Gorzelak) and the agricultural sector (Wilkin). Gorzelak assumes that economic Darwinism (228) will overcome the clearly visible regional disparities in income and development. Wilkin’s contribution on agriculture provides a depressing testimony of rural life. Having already lost out in the 1990s from too much shock and not enough therapy, farmers are set to suffer even more with entry to the EU. As if this is not enough, Wilkin also emphasises that the possibilities for reform in the sector are hampered by political inertia.

In the final section, International Dimensions of Poland’s Transformation, George Blazyca gives an account of Poland’s position in the international economy. While the reorientation of international trade from East to West has been successful, his exhaustive survey probes problematic issues like the burgeoning current account deficit, the impact of foreign investment and the quality of the changes since 1989. He concludes on the discouraging note that Poland faces yet more difficult choices between (neo) liberal and interventionist policies to rectify the growing threat of trade imbalance. Orlowski’s chapter concentrates on appraising potential EU accession. Noting the development gap between East and West and the unprecedented nature of the challenge for Poland and the EU, Orlowski offers a credible argument for the return to Europe, coming down squarely in favour of the importance of real convergence with the EU economies. The final chapter by Christopher Bobinski, recounts the ‘Bristol Appeal’ (297) where the seven post-communist prime ministers were asked whether political leaders could work together to achieve EU accession. Through this device Bobinski covers the taxing issues facing Poland into the new millennium. He too strikes a note of caution concerning the EU; warning domestic acceptance of membership is no longer a foregone conclusion (305).

Poland into the New Millennium is a welcome addition to the literature on transition. It is published at a time of great uncertainty in the Polish transformation with possible EU accession in the near future, continued macroeconomic problems of high inflation and a weak current account balance further compounded by escalating unemployment and the demographic effects of ‘Jaruzelski’s revenge’. It is published at an opportune moment just as Poles voted in an election that witnessed the disintegration of Solidarity as a major political force.

As far as the volume’s stated aims are concerned this is mostly an excellent survey of the first decade of systemic transformation, raising interesting questions concerning the pace of reform and the balance between economic growth and social equality. The collection illustrates that while political and economic transition is firmly embedded the quality of these changes remains far from balanced. There is also the worrying spectre that transition might never be complete with Poland (and other transition states) consigned to the European periphery. More ambiguous is the evaluation of Poland’s future. Many of the contributors remain optimistic despite evidence to the contrary.

Edited volumes like this are often betrayed by a lack of coherence and consistency, but this is a criticism that cannot be levelled here. Indeed, it is perhaps the lack of consistency among the various contributors that signals a most profitable line of enquiry. The editors have gathered together an impressive array of transition ‘observer/activists’. This is one of the most interesting facets of this book, featuring a high proportion of those who operate at the interstices of politics, international institution and academia. However, one of the drawbacks of this approach is the pervasive optimism of indigenous contributors. This jars slightly, especially when so many of the chapters expose the shifting sands beneath the ‘success’ of Polish transition. These criticisms aside, for anyone with an interest in transition the intimate familiarity with the process portrayed here is fascinating and for those specifically interested in Poland it is essential reading.