May 30, 2003


New Europe Old Economy: Poised to join the E.U., Poland is America's new best friend. But the country is also in deep distress. (ANDREW PURVIS, TIME Europe)
The war in Iraq may have raised temperatures in Europe and America and opened a dangerous new rift in the transatlantic alliance, but in Poland there was never much question about which side to be on. President Aleksander Kwasniewski, the man in charge of foreign policy, watched the antiwar movement in Western Europe with a mixture of incomprehension and disgust. When France, Germany and Belgium forced NATO (which Poland recently joined) to reject Turkey's request for antimissile defenses, Kwasniewski wondered what solidarity among allies really meant to them. And when Jacques Chirac suggested that Eastern Europe's leaders "missed a good opportunity to stay quiet" after they failed to back his antiwar policy, Kwasniewski was furious. In the end, it was like choosing a spouse: a gut feeling about who would make a loyal partner for life. "We had a chance to change the brotherhood of words to the brotherhood of blood," says Marek Siwiec, Kwasniewski's National Security Adviser. "And we took it." So Poland cast its lot with the superpower across the sea. It's no coincidence that George W. Bush's first stop on his first foreign trip since the fall of Baghdad, later this week, will be Krakow. The American President doesn't forget people who stand by him in the clutch. The last time Bush came to Poland, in 2001, he arrived after a stony reception in Western Europe. But in Warsaw, the crowds were so rapturous that one diplomat described him emerging, as in The Wizard of Oz, from a black-and-white world into living Technicolor.

For Poland too, the colors are suddenly vivid, and a risky but exhilarating journey lies ahead. This is starting to look like a good century for the Poles. [...]

Poland's other battle is raging closer to home. The country's E.U. advocates got a nasty surprise in April when Hungary, arguably the E.U.'s most enthusiastic candidate, managed a measly 46% turnout in its referendum (pre-vote polls had predicted 70%). In Poland, 50% of voters must cast ballots to validate the result. As a result, the clamor to vote tak (Polish for yes) has reached fever pitch. Kwaysniewski, who remains popular, ski-jumping sensation Adam Malysz and even some Dutch and Greek diplomats are barnstorming the countryside, touting the virtues of E.U. subsidies and the greater European family. In TV ads, children are shown dreaming of playing for Real Madrid, jobs are plentiful and every Pole is vacationing on the French Riviera. "It's their first time!" whispers one spot, showing young lovers on a date. "First time to vote."

The former dissident Adam Michnik, who was jailed for six years under communism and now edits the country's biggest newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, says Poland's accession to the E.U. will seal its transformation from communist satellite to full partner in the Western world. Puffing on a Gitanes cigarette at his top-floor office in a leafy Warsaw suburb, Michnik says a yes vote is his dream, a no his nightmare. "I am not an enthusiast of Chirac or [German Chancellor Gerhard] Schroeder," he says. "But I prefer them to [Belarusian President Alexander] Lukashenko." [...]

Another reason why support for the E.U. may be gaining ground is the sputtering economy. It's shedding so many jobs that the only thing keeping many Poles off the streets is the "gray" or shadow economy, which experts say makes up about 27% of overall GDP, higher than Poland's southern neighbors, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, but comparable, roughly, to Italy and Greece. Socialist-era dinosaurs have not modernized fast enough and face more layoffs. The coal sector alone was hemorrhaging $1 billion a year until a few years ago; that figure is down to $130 million now, but analysts say at least 12 more mines must shut, swallowing about 35,000 jobs. [...]

"Sometimes I have the feeling we can't accomplish all we need to do at the same time," muses Jacek Piechota, Secretary of State for the Ministry of Economy, Labor and Social Policy. But critics say the government, which plans to cut corporate income tax from 27% to 19% while abolishing most tax breaks and exemptions, is not doing enough--especially to cut social spending and invest in infrastructure like roads.

Yesterday we mentioned how most baseball management seems unable to learn the rather simple lessons that statisticisns like Bill James have taught--as witness the Arizona Diamondbacks trading the Red Sox a front-line pitcher yesterday for Shea Hillenbrand, who has just 45 walks in about 1300 career at-bats. Perhaps we shouldn't be so hard on these mere sports executives since entire nations--including ours--have put their futures at risk by not learning the fairly simple lessons that theoreticians like Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, James Madison, Alexis de Tocqueville, Albert Jay Nock, FA Hayek, Milton Friedman, Francis Fukuyama, and the rest, have taught us. What Poland requires--cutting and rationalizing taxes and reducing the welfare state--is similarly required by most (all?) industrialized nations, but instead we keep adding Shea Hillenbrands. Posted by Orrin Judd at May 30, 2003 9:06 AM
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