Leading the Way to Regionalization in East Central Europe: An Evaluation of Poland's Territorial and Administrative Reforms
October 8, 2003

Staff-prepared summary of the East European Studies discussion with Jennifer Yoder, Associate Professor of Government and Director of the International Studies Program, Colby College

In her discussion, Jennifer Yoder argued that Poland has achieved great success in regionalization and decentralization. Yoder believes that three factors enabled Poland to make progress on its path to regionalization, while other East European states such as the Czech Republic and Hungary have either lagged behind or have yet to begin this process. The factors are EU stimulus, historical traditions and a favorable political atmosphere.

First, the EU served as an impetus for Polish regionalization. The Commission urged accession countries to decentralize government and set up regional administrations, which would manage EU structural funds after enlargement. While the EU clearly influenced this process, it is not enough to explain Poland's leading position in regionalization as compared with other EU applicant countries that did not take steps toward devolution of centralized power, or did so much later.

Yoder contends that a crucial element was Poland's long historical tradition of regionalization. The division of Polish territory into voivods, or regions, dates back to 15th century Poland-Lithuania. Though differently configured, voivods were recreated by the interwar and postwar governments. Because of this history, Yoder believes that "the trend towards regionalization in Poland today is not viewed as a creation of the Communist regime, as it is in the Czech Republic. Rather, regional identities remain strong and intact." Finally, the Solidarity movement were great proponents of regionalization, since devolution of centralized power went hand in hand with postcommunist reform. Indeed, the goals of Solidarity are largely in line with what regionalization achieves: checks on power, citizen participation, and decommunization.

Poland's regional councils were first elected in the late 1990s, after much partisan bickering over how they should be organized and what powers they should have. The primary objective of the councils, called sejmniki, is economic development, whereby the council stimulates business activity and competitiveness in the region. But the sejmniki are also involved with the improvement of higher education and health services, and the modernization of rural areas. Furthermore, they aim to "nurture Polishness," with the development of regional identity, cultural preservation, the protection of the environment for future generations and to shape and maintain spatial order. In order to achieve greater success, Yoder finds it imperative for the councils to promote better cooperation with local NGOs and other regions in neighboring countries. In this regard it is noteworthy that inter-regional cooperation has been much more developed in Poland's western borders with Germany than in the east with Ukraine and Belarus.

With the increasing role that regions will play in Europe, Poland will be able to quickly adapt to these changes after accession. Poland's sejmniki may serve as a model to strengthen and improve upon the new regional governments in postcommunist East Europe.