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Iron Curtain Thursday, 14 October, 1999, 12:39 GMT 13:39 UK
Market realities hit Poland
Warsaw
Warsaw is booming but many Poles are still dissatisfied
By BBC News Online's Jane Black

Ten years after the fall of communism, the streets of Warsaw are virtually unrecognisable. A new class of young professionals has sprung up. Their new cars jam the streets. Their mobile phones ring constantly. Their clothes come from Paris, Rome and New York.

Communism - the end of an era
Poland, the Communist country, has transformed itself into Poland, the tiger economy of Europe. The private sector is now responsible for at least two-thirds of economic activity. The real yearly growth rate for 1997 hit 6.9% compared to 4.4% in Hungary and 0.7% in the Czech Republic.

But the average Pole is not happy. Only 16% support the current government whose populist promises have fallen flat two years after taking office.

That's because the economic statistics don't report the small but frustrating changes that affect the everyday lives of most Poles. There have been 14 rises in the price of petrol this year alone. Parents are being forced to accept a new school syllabus and go to family doctors instead of group practices.

"With the influx of complexity into everyday life, Poles have to make more and more decisions," says George Kolankiewicz, an expert on post-communist Poland. "The majority of the population is not educated and sophisticated enough to make those decisions and that can make people unhappy, even though things are improving year on year."

Power to the people

Many believe former Communists have reaped all the benefits
Many Poles believe former Communists have reaped all the benefits
Polish dissatisfaction is furthered by lingering conspiracy theories that former Politburo members are making all the money while the lives of average people have not changed enough.

"There is a new generation coming up ... the Polish version of American yuppies," said Tomek Lepinski, one of Poland's most famous punk rockers. But briefly speaking, among the richest people in Poland are the former Communist leaders and contemporary communist leaders. They still really control politics, money, big deals and arms."

Czeslaw Bielecki, an MP and an underground publisher in the 1980s, says the situation is an outrage.

"The fact that they could get such big profits, economic profits from their defeat is something unjust in the most elemental sense of the word."

But while such attitudes are widespread there is little economic information to back them up.

"The truth is we don't really have good data," said London School of Economics Professor Stanislaw Gomulka and an adviser to Poland's finance minister. "What we know is the people in the private sector - the top 5% - are doing extraordinarily well. The composition of the group in terms of background is less certain.

"Just because someone was a manager in a state enterprise doesn't mean he was a communist apparatchik."

Transition or transformation?

Observers say the discontent is part of a larger cultural backlash. Moving to a consumer society simply is not as easy as predicted. Choice brings responsibility. Responsibility breeds stress.

"People's attitudes have hangovers from the past," says George Kolankiewicz. "The question Poles must answer is how ready are you to take your place in a complex, consumer society. The answer: Not as ready as they thought."

It's true that Poland has a long way to go before it can consider itself a true market economy - culturally and economically. The government has not yet tackled the privatisation of state-owned steel mills and coal mines - a decision which has been disastrous. While state-owned firms still account for one third of industrial sales, they employ more than 40% of industrial workers and provide only 5% of the profits.

A June government report that sketched out Poland's strategy for 2000 to 2010 says it is essential to complete privatisation. It also recommends increasing domestic savings and reducing welfare spending as well as taking on Poland's "stone-age" agriculture system.

Economists hope such changes will bring new wealth to a larger slice of the population. But Poland watchers know that what Poland really needs is more time.

Poles need time to let freedom sink in, entrepreneurialism take off and a new generation take hold of the reins of power. And that is something that no government can deliver.

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