**  POLAND  2010   -  A  PROLOGUE  **
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For our belated 2010 trip, we are heading east again this time to Poland, a fellow member state of the EU whose 1989 post-Communist revival has recently been thrown into turmoil by the tragic death in a plane crash of the country's Head of State President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and so many of Poland's governing and diplomatic elite. Never before has our visit to a country been prefaced by such a scale of national disaster.

Few other European countries have had such a chequered history as Poland: at its mightiest, a huge commonwealth extending into the Baltics, Russia and Ukraine; at its nadir, a nation which existed only as an ideal having been partitioned by powerful and aggressive neighbours. Having regained its independence after WW1, Poland suffered more than any other under German barbarism in WW2 and its population and cities devastated, only then to languish under 40 years of Communist oppression until its re-emergence as a sovereign democratic republic in 1989. Yet for all this historic suffering, the Polish people have shown a remarkable resilience and a distinctive Polish culture has survived and developed without interruption for more than a millennium.

Having spent 10 weeks in autumn 2009 exploring the neighbouring Czech Republic, and slipped briefly across the border into southern Poland during our 2008 trip to Slovakia, we felt obligated to make a full scale visit this year to the Republic of Poland (Rzeczpospolita Polaska). We set off shortly, but as is our custom, we present this Prologue study of Poland's geographical, economic, cultural and historical background as a foretaste of our late summer 2010 host country.


Polish National Anthem:  the dignified Mazurek Dąbrowskiego is currently playing, the opening line of which translates as Poland Is Not Yet Lost. Originally written in 1797 at a time when the nation of Poland had been erased from the map, this patriotic poem gave inspiration to the Polish people despite their nation's lack of political sovereignty. When Poland re-emerged as an independent state in 1918, Mazurek Dąbrowskiego became its de facto anthem, officially adopted as the national anthem of the Republic of Poland in 1926, and along with the national colours and White Eagle coat of arms is one of the three national symbols defined by the 1997 constitution of the modern Polish state.

Geography:  situated in north-central Europe, Poland extends 524 kms along its Baltic coastline, and shares its 3,054 kms land border with Germany to the west, Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Russia to the east. With 312,685 square kms of territory, it is the ninth largest country in Europe. The country is divided administratively into 16 provinces (Voivodeships); click on the map above for details. The Baltic coastal plain was shaped by the retreating Scandinavian ice-sheet after the last Ice Age, leaving the sand and gravel deposits which now characterise the coastline. Some 9,000 post-glacial lakes now cover Poland's NE plains which also contain Europe's only remaining primeval forests (puszcza). Much of central Poland consists of fertile agricultural plains, the country's main grain producing region. The 19th century industrial revolution was fuelled from the vast coal deposits of Upper Silesia in the western part of the lowlands. In dramatic contrast, the forested Sudetes hills, jagged alpine peaks of the Tatra Mountains and Carpathian Bieszczady hills form Poland's natural demarcation with its southern neighbours, with the country's highest point Mount Rysy in the Tatras rising to 2,499m. Poland's rivers drain northwards into the Baltic Sea: the 1090 kms long River Vistula, with its source in the Tatra mountains to the south and its tributaries the Bug and Narev Rivers, drains almost half the country and passes through both Kraków and the capital Warsaw; the second largest river the Odra and its major tributary the Warta drains the western part of Poland and forms part of the western border. Over-intensive industrialisation during the Communist period left Poland with appalling environmental problems. The situation has improved since 1989 due to decline in heavy industry and increased environmental concern by post-Communist governments, but air pollution remains serious because of sulphur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants, with resulting acid rain causing forest damage. Pollution levels should continue to decrease as industrial establishments are brought up to EU standards, but at substantial cost to business and the government.

Demographics:  Poland was for centuries one of Europe's most cosmopolitan countries with a varied population, and because of historical religious tolerance was home to Europe's largest Jewish community. The county however suffered unparalleled physical and humanitarian devastation in WW2. The post WW2 radical boundary changes were followed by population relocation involving 10 million people: Poles were moved into the newly defined state of Poland, while Poland's ethnic Germans, Ukrainians and Belarusians were resettled outside its new borders. The result is that 97% of the country's current population of 38.5 million now claims Polish ancestry, making Poland one of the most ethnically homogeneous countries in Europe. Poland is a staunchly Catholic country with support from 90% of the population; for Poles the late Pope John Paul II (formerly Karol Wojtyła, Archbishop of Krakow) retains cult status.

Economy:  WW2 left Poland in utter ruins with its cities reduced to rubble; the boundary changes did however restore to Poland industrially valuable Silesia and the port-city of Gdańsk. With Poland firmly under Soviet control, the country was burdened by inflexible command-economy geared to heavy engineering, ship-building, coal and steel production: industries were nationalised, farming collectivised, enterprise stifled by absurd central planning, with scant regard for environmental impact or the wider needs of the population. By the 1980s spiralling inflation and excessive cost of foreign debts brought disastrous economic slump; continuing increases in food prices prompted organised industrial unrest which paralysed industry. Confrontation with the Solidarity trade union brought the imposition of martial law, and the Communist ability to cling to power was ended with Gorbachev's programme of perestroika. The movement for change was irreversible: elections in summer 1989 ushered in eastern Europe's first post-communist government. Post-1989 democratic governments embarked on an initially successful process of switching to market economy, and until 1997, Poland was seen as the economic success story of the former eastern bloc with healthy foreign investments, new businesses flourishing and revived tourism bringing in much-needed revenue. GDP grew about 5% annually, based on rising private consumption, increased corporate investment, and inflow of EU funds providing a major boost to the economy. But the economic downturn of the late 1990s has produced severe economic hardship: unemployment runs at some 9%, soaring to over 30% in some parts of the country and among the young. Poland still has a large farming sector which is unwieldy and inefficient, with poverty still widespread in rural areas. Poland joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union in 2004, but still retains its own currency, the Złoty (pronounced 'zwoti') with current exchange rate around 5zł to the pound sterling; the Polish government plans to meet the criteria for joining the Euro-zone around 2012.


Foundation of the Kingdom of Poland (AD 960~1370):
  lying beyond the frontiers of the Roman Empire, the great plain that is present-day Poland, stretching from the River Oder in the west to the Russian steppes, had supported a nomadic tribal culture for 1000s of years. The region was first settled by Slavic tribes around the 8th century AD and by the 10th century, these Slavic groups were unified into a recognisable territorial entity under the legendary Piast dynasty, gradually extending their territory eastwards. Poland's first historically documented ruler, Mieszko I (960~992) was baptized in 966 AD, adopting Catholic Christianity as the nation's new official religion, and by 1000 AD Poland's status as a fully fledged kingdom was recognized by papal authority under Bolesłav the Brave, with Kraków as its capital. By the 12th century however the Polish kingdom had fragmented into several smaller states, weakened by dynastic feuding, its territories threatened by expansionist neighbours. In 1225 support was enlisted from the quasi-monastic militaristic Order of Teutonic Knights to protect the northern frontiers from the heathen Prussians. The Teutonic Knights established themselves as the principal military power in northern Europe in a series of mighty castles, ruthlessly turning on their Polish hosts to form an independent state. They captured the great port of Gdańsk which developed into a wealthy mercantile city, and settled German peasants along the fertile agricultural Baltic plain. Although now landlocked, Poland was reunited under the last of the Piast kings, Kazimierz the Great (1333~70). Kazimierz re-established a firm central political authority, embellishing Kraków with magnificent buildings worthy of a great European capital and seat of the country's first university. He codified the country's laws, unified its governing structure and secured its frontiers, extending Poland's territory eastwards. Most significantly, Kazimierz encouraged the settlement of Jews who had been the victims of pogroms all over Europe, and a law of 1346 specifically protected Jews against persecution within Poland, leading to Poland's centuries-long position as home to the largest community of European Jewry.

The Jagiełłonian dynasty, the Renaissance and Reformation, and the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania (1384~1600):  this period was marked by two important factors: the Polish aristocracy's assertion of power to elect future monarchs, and the alliance between Poland and Lithuania whose territory stretched from the Baltic to the Crimea. In 1384 Jadwiga was chosen by the Polish nobles to succeed to the throne; her marriage to Jagiełło, Grand Duke of Lithuania, tied the two nations into a lasting alliance, sufficiently powerful to defeat the Teutonic Knights at the decisive Battle of Grunwald in 1410. This victory marked the decline of Teutonic power: Gdańsk (Danzig) became an independent mercantile city-state; the remainder of the Knights' territory became known as Royal Prussia subject to Poland, leaving just East Prussia in the Teutonic Order's control. Poland's Catholic links with Italy greatly facilitated the spread of Renaissance learning under leading thinkers like Nicolaus Copernicus. The establishment of the Polish parliament, the Sejm, in 1493 increased the nobility's control as a check on monarchical power. Under the Reformation, Lutheranism took a strong hold in Danzig and the German dominated cities of Royal Prussia and in East Prussia ruled by the Hohenzollern clan. By the end of the 15th century, Poland faced new threats from the east with the Muscovite Tsars intent on expanding the Russian empire. Lacking an heir, the last of the Jagiełłonians, Sigismund August (1548~1572) spent his final years trying to forge an alliance strong enough to withstand the expanding might of Moscow. The result was the 1569 Union of Lublin under which Poland and Lithuania were formally merged into the Commonwealth of the Two Nations. During this Golden Age period (Commonwealth of Poland~Lithuania), Poland expanded its borders to become the largest country in Europe, now controlling territories covering most of what today is Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and parts of Russia. In 1596, the capital officially moved to Warsaw as a more central location for the combined state. Sigismund's death led to constitutional reforms known as the Noble's Republic: the increase of the Sejm's powers meant that henceforth Polish kings, elected by the nobles, were subject to strict parliamentary checks, foreshadowing the modern concept of constitutional monarchy.

Poland's decline and Partitioning between Russia, Prussia and Austria (1620~1795):  under ineffectual kings in the mid-17th century, Poland was weakened by wars with Russia, by Swedish invasion and by Prussia's assertion of power under the Hohenzollens. Internal rule by the nobles began Poland's decline into ungovernability by repeated misuse of the liberum veto under which a single vote could stall legislation and even dissolve the Sejm. Despite this erosion of Polish power, King Jan Sobieski led the successful repulse of the Ottoman Turks from Vienna in 1683, but the war exhausted Polish military capacity, enabling Habsburg Austria to recover as an imperial power and the predatory Prussians to encroach further into Polish territory. Sobieski's neglect of domestic policy and the nobles' abuse of power led to further destabilization of its political system bringing Poland to the brink of political anarchy. In the 18th century, internal conflict between the monarch and nobles further weakened Poland, enabling Tsarist Russia to exercise increasing influence and control over the kingdom, and for expansionist Prussia to seize more of Poland's northern territory. From 1772 this led to Poland's progressive annexation and partitioning between the Empires of Tsarist Russia, Imperial Prussia and Habsburg Austria. Despite residual resistance from the Poles, in 1795 the three partitioning powers abolished the very name of Poland which was erased from the map of Europe for the next 120 years. (Partitioning of Poland - map)

Defeat of Napoleon, Congress of Vienna and 19th Century struggles against the Partitions (1799~1914):  Revolutionary France was naturally the country that Polish patriots looked to in their struggle to regain national independence, and Paris became the focus of Polish exiles and conspiratorial groups. Hopes centred around Napoleon Bonaparte, and Polish legions played a part in the French victory over Prussia, leading to the creation of the Duchy of Warsaw in 1807 out of Polish territory previously annexed by the Prussians. Although only a buffer state, it was a first step in the recreation of Poland with Józef Poniatowski as its leader. Napoleon's 1809 successful Austrian campaign ceded part of Galicia to the Duchy and his 1812 victories restored Poland's historic frontier with Russia. Napoleon's humiliating retreat from Moscow was as disastrous for Poland as for France, and Poniatowski's choice of heroic but suicidal defeat at the hands of the Prussians and Russians near Leipzig, encapsulating the nation's hopeless plight, served as a symbol to Polish patriots for the rest of the 19th century. The 1815 congress of Vienna ruled against the re-establishment of an independent Poland in post-Napoleonic Europe, since this was opposed by the Russians. Instead, parts of the Duchy of Warsaw were restored to Prussia and Austria, and most of Poland placed under the dominion of the Russian Tsar. Polish insurrections during the 19th century achieved little, leading to the first great wave of Polish emigration principally to America. Polish patriots within the Russian and Austrian sectors were less concerned with trying to win independence than trying to keep alive their distinctive culture. Prussia was the most efficiently repressive of the three partitioning powers, forging a modern industrial society with Poles making up a large proportion of the workforce, and in 1871, they unified Germany, imposing their ruthlessly ambitious and militaristic tradition.

World War I, the Reconstitution of the Polish Republic, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Soviet Union (1918~1939):  WW1 smashed the might of the three partitioning empires, Prussian-dominated Germany, Habsburg Austria and Tsarist Russia, allowing the victorious Allies in 1918 to recognise a reconstituted independent Poland, backed by the Bolshevik government in Moscow. Józef Piłsudski emerged from the rival contenders for leadership of the Polish nation, and was sworn in as the head of state. The new Poland lacked a defined territory, and the precise frontiers were only established over the following three years. The Paris peace conference gave Poland access to the sea by the Polish Corridor cut through former Royal Prussia which left East Prussia cut off from Germany; Danzig (Gdańsk) was excluded on the grounds that its population was predominantly German and reverted to its status as a city-state. All of this unsatisfactory compromise was to have tragic consequences in 1939. The Allies attempted by diplomacy to resolve the eastern frontier issue along a line defined by the British Foreign Secretary George Curzon, the so-called Curzon Line. But the Polish-Soviet War of 1919~21 more significantly determined Poland's post-WW1 eastern borders: to prevent the Bolsheviks spreading their revolution westwards, Piłsudski took advantage of the civil war between 'Red' and 'White Russians to regain a chunk of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth's eastern territories, (Poland's post-WW1 1922 borders - map), an acquisition confirmed by the 1921 Treaty of Riga. The League of Nations resolved by plebiscite other border issues, dividing Upper Silesia between Germany and Poland so giving the new Poland an industrial base around Katowice. After a period of ineffectual governments attempting to deal with hyper-inflation and agrarian reform, Piłsudski staged a military coup and functioned as Poland's unelected leader until his death in 1935. Poland's international position was tenuous: having a country led by Stalin as eastern neighbour was bad enough, but when Hitler seized power in Germany in 1933, Poland became a sitting duck between two ruthless predators. Alliance with appeasement-minded Britain and France seemed a less than reliable defence, as Czechoslovakia was to discover to her cost. Hitler made no pretence about his determination to wipe Poland from the map, contemptuously regarding Slavs as untermenschen fit only as slaves to Aryans. In August 1939, Hitler's foreign minister von Ribbentrop concluded the notorious Non-aggression Pact with his Soviet opposite number Molotov; a secret clause cynically agreed the full partition of Poland between the two dictators, and on 1 September 1939 Hitler invaded Poland precipitating WW2.

World War II (1939~1945):  the German invasion of Poland began with the annexation of the free city of Danzig followed by the blitzkrieg overrunning of western Poland. The Poles fought with great courage but were numerically and technologically in a hopeless position. On 17 September, the Soviets invaded the eastern part of the country, grabbing the share-out agreed by the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The Allies, who had guaranteed to come to Poland's defence, failed to react other than by declaring war on Hitler, and by the first week of October Poland had capitulated. A government in exile was established in London under Władysław Sikorski. Western Poland was absorbed into the German Reich, while the rest of German-occupied Poland including Warsaw, Lublin and Kraków was placed under separate German administration, called the General Government, set up to exploit the economic and labour potential of Poland. Concentration, forced-labour and extermination camps were established on an industrial scale across the country, and millions of Polish civilians were annihilated, including virtually the entire Jewish population who were forcibly herded into ghettoes and transported to camps for systematic extermination (German WW2 extermination camps across Poland - map).
In the Soviet-occupied eastern part of the country, Polish POWs were transported east to the Gulag camps, and under Stalin's direct orders, over 20,000 members of the Polish officer corps, intelligentsia and leading officials were executed by the NKVD secret police, the most notorious massacre being in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk. Members of the Polish armed forces escaped to the west and fought with distinction alongside the Allies: Polish pilots fought with the RAF in the Battle of Britain, Polish troops suffered high casualties in the capture of Monte Casino in the Italian campaign, and a Polish parachute brigade took part in the Arnhem drop with their commander General Sosabowski later being made a scapegoat for the operation's failure. With the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin was obliged to make an alliance with Sikorski, leading to an uneasy cooperation between the Red Army and Polish Resistance, the Home Army (AK). Soviet victory at Stalingrad in 1943 marked the turning point, enabling Stalin to backtrack on undertakings made to the Polish government-in-exile and the Red Army forced the Germans to retreat westwards. At the Tehran Conference of the Big Three in November 1943, Stalin insisted that the USSR should retain the territories annexed in 1939 with the borders of post-war Poland determined along the Oder-Neisse rivers and the Curzon line; future European 'spheres of influence' were agreed making it inevitable that Poland would be forced into the Soviet camp. As the Red Army liberated eastern Poland in July 1944, the Polish Home Army rose in rebellion against the German occupiers to liberate Warsaw and secure Polish sovereignty before the arrival of the Soviets. The Red Army dallied on the city's outskirts, allowing the Uprising to be crushed in a bloodbath; Stalin wanted the insurrection to fail so that Soviet occupation of Poland would be uncontested. Hitler ordered Warsaw to be totally razed, leaving the ruins to be occupied by the Red Army (see photo left). The Soviets continued westwards, liberating the rest of Poland on the way to overrunning Berlin in April 1945. No country suffered as much in WW2 as Poland: the whole country lay in devastation, and over 6 million people, 25% of the pre-war population, lost their lives; out of 3 million Polish Jews in 1939, only a few survived the holocaust. As a result of WW2, Poland was reduced in size and its borders shifted west by some 200 kms; Stalin had achieved his aim of moving the Soviet frontier and sphere of influence westwards. At Tehran, Churchill and Roosevelt had consented to the USSR setting up puppet communist governments in Poland and other Eastern European countries which would result in a loss of freedom for these countries for the next fifty years and would be the genesis of the Cold War. (Poland's 1922 borders, Soviet and Nazi-Germany occupation 1939, and post-WW2 1945).

Post-war Polish Communism under Gomułka and Gierek (1946~1979):  the Polish communists took power not with public support as the Czechs had done but through the military and political dictate of the occupying Soviets who ran the country as an outlying province of Moscow, intimidating political opposition and brutally suppressing a nationalist uprising in Western Ukraine by the Polish army. In 1948 the communists and socialists merged to form the Polish United Workers' Party (PZPR) under Władyslaw Gomulka, and as the Cold War emerged, Poland was locked into Soviet economic and political control. In 1952, a new constitution enshrined the leading role of the PZPR in every aspect of political life with power resting with the Politburo and Central Committee bureaucracy. The Catholic Church retained a degree of political and cultural independence its defiance epitomised by the primate Cardinal Wynszyński who was imprisoned in 1953 for 'anti-state' activities. Three and Six Year Plans drove forward collectivization of agriculture and development of nationalised mining and steel industries in Silesia and shipbuilding in Gdańsk; but standards of living remained low, food was scarce, and unrestrained industrialisation resulted in appalling pollution. 1956 saw the first political crisis of the communist era with industrial unrest leading to major confrontation with the authorities over shortages of food and consumer goods, bad housing and decline in income. Gomulka managed to restore order with promises of reform, and despite Khrushchev's rage at this flouting of Kremlin authority, Soviet military intervention was narrowly avoided. After some easing of cultural and economic control, the impetus for political reform faded and the 1960s saw a progressive return to centralised panning, stagnant economy and attempts to control an increasingly disaffected populace. in 1970, further food price rises triggered outbreaks of strikes and demonstrations in the Gdańsk shipyards; when troops fired on protesters killing many, unrest spread to the point of open insurrection. The Central Committee hastened Gomulka's retirement replacing him with the reformist Edward Gierek. Despite promises of price freeze and wage increases strikes broke out again with demands for free trade unions and free press. Gierek restored calm and with heavy government borrowing, the early 1970s were marked by higher living standards, and cheaper more plentiful food and consumer goods. But with the economic recession and oil crisis of the mid-1970s, government debt became impossible to sustain, and by 1976 Gierek again announced unprecedented food price rises, and this time the resultant strikes and demonstrations were forcibly suppressed and activists imprisoned. Perhaps even more decisive was the election in 1978 of Karol Wojtyła, Archbishop of Kraków as Pope John Paul II. A fierce opponent of the communist regime, he became a symbol of cultural identity and international influence for the Polish people, and his visit to Poland in 1979 provided a public demonstration of potential popular power.

Solidarity Trade Union,  Jarulzelski  and the demise of Communism (1980~1989):  Gierek's announcement in 1980 of 100% rises in food prices brought more strikes in the Gdańsk led by Lech Wałęsa a shipyard electrician; the strikers' Twenty One Points manifesto demanded freeing of political prisoners, freedom of the press and trade unions, the right to strike, televised Catholic Mass, higher wages, consultation over the economic crisis and an end to Party privileges. The Party caved in and signed the historic Gdańsk Agreements under which free trade unions under the name of Solidarity (Solidarność) were formed covering 75% of Poland's workforce. Gierek and his supporters were swept from office by the Party and Warsaw Pact forces were mobilised along Poland's borders as other East European political communist leaders foresaw Solidarity's success threatening their own states. Deadlock ensued throughout 1981, while the economic crisis gathered pace with Solidarity powerless to do other than bring the economy to its knees. In 1981 General Jarulzelski took control of the Party, and in the face of threats of general strike, continued to negotiate with Solidarity leaders but refused to relinquish any power. Occupations and strikes were broken up by troops, martial law imposed, Solidarity banned, civil liberties suspended, and union leaders arrested. Such repressive measures did nothing to solve the underlying economic malaise, and in the face of determined opposition from the now underground Solidarity movement, martial law was lifted in the wake of Pope John Paul II's second visit to his home country in 1983. Jarulzelski continued trying to dig Poland out of economic crisis between 1984 and 1988, with national debt running at astronomical levels, wages slumped and production hampered by endemic labour unrest. In 1987 a referendum on the government's programme of reforms was rejected and Jarulzelski finally acknowledged defeat, accepting the need for power sharing with Solidarity; only Mikhail Gorbachev's election as Kremlin secretary general made this capitulation possible. In 1989, the famous Round Table Agreement led to communist acceptance of opposition demands for limited free elections in which the communists suffered a totally humiliating defeat: although 65% of seats in the Sejm (parliament) were reserved for the PZPR (communist) party, the unthinkable became possible with a Solidarity-led government, the first non-communist government in Eastern Europe since WW2. In January 1989 the PZRP disintegrated and voted to dissolve itself. Lech Wałęsa won the presidential elections in 1990 promising a faster pace of reform and removal of privileges for communist elite. His new government's austerity programme won backing from the IMF resulting in agreement on reduction of Poland's multi-billion national debt. In 1991 the first fully free elections since WW2 produced a wide array of parties in the Sejm and a coalition centre-right government which adopted an increasingly aggressive stance on unmasking public figures compromised by collaboration with the security services during the communist era; this issue of 'lustration' - exclusion from public life of those tainted by such accusations - has been a controversial issue in Polish politics since.

The post-Communist Republic of Poland (1993~ present):  the 1993 elections brought a left-wing coalition government led by the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), which affirmed its commitment to continued market reforms while pledging to address its negative social effects. The government's authority was undermined however by wrangling with President Wałęsa who finally retired from office after defeat in the 1995 presidential elections by Aleksander Kwaśniewski, a more consensus-building national figurehead than his predecessor who resisted the temptation to interfere in day to day politics and was elected for a second term in 2000. 1997 brought a return to power of a centre-right coalition, Solidarity Election Action (AWS) which continued the market reforms and as a dominant foreign policy pursued Poland's membership of NATO and the EU; despite Russian misgivings, Poland along with Hungary and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999. Despite volatile party politics which failed to impress public expectations and political scandals, Poland joined the EU in 2004. New political parties emerged in 2005, with the traditionalist-conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) winning a narrow parliamentary margin over the rival Civic Platform Party (PO). The PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski's twin brother Lech Kaczynski was elected President in a prolonged and bitterly fought contest. The PiS formed a minority government under prime minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, but the quarrelsome and unstable political climate led to his resignation; instead President Lech Kaczynski appointed his twin brother Jaroslaw as prime minister, leading to a period of controversial rule by the 'Terrible Twins'. Internally the PiS government embarked on further 'lustrations' in what was seen as a political witch-hunt, with a powerful Anti-Corruption Bureau investigating and prosecuting public officials accused of corruption and links with organised crime and the former communist security services. Internationally the Kaczynski brothers' defence of Polish national interests and marked pro-American stance offended EU partners, particularly France and Germany, and Russia. Coalition infighting caused the collapse of the PiS government in 2007, and in the ensuing general elections, Civic Platform Party (PO) won an emphatic victory with Donald Tusk as prime minister. To date the PO government has continued to enjoy high ratings but has appeared over-cautious in introducing critical economic reforms. On foreign policy, the Tusk administration has achieved improvements in Poland's relations with the EU but less so with Russia. Tragedy on a national scale hit Poland in April 2010 when the airliner carrying President Kaczynski, ironically on the way to attend the commemoration ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Katyń Massacre, crashed killing some 90 leading Polish government officials, members of the diplomatic service and senior military officers. In line with the constitution, the Speaker of the Sejm Bronisław Komorowski assumed the position of Acting President, until new Presidential elections are held on 20 June; there are 10 candidates, including Bronisław Komorowski and former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, twin brother of the late president.

So that's the chequered and turbulent background story of Poland so far, with so much more for us to learn and to understand as the country prepares to elect a new president after the recent national tragedy. We hope our travels will give the opportunity of learning more for ourselves about Polish culture which has so resiliently withstood centuries of oppression. We look forward also to discussing and understanding more about peoples' lives in modern Poland as a fully-fledged EU democratic state, and their hopes for a politically and economically stable future. We set off shortly and as usual shall be publishing regular updates to our web site, with news and pictures of our travels. Add the site to your Favourites and be sure of sharing our travels; we should welcome your companionship.

Sheila and Paul

Published:  26 May 2010


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The Polish National Anthem

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