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In its essentials, Poland was an East European communist country like any other. Like its fellow Soviet-bloc members, Poland had distinctive features, but its path to 1989 is best explained in terms of specific developments over the previous decade. Under repression since 1981, Solidarity had proved its staying power as the regime's necessary negotiating partner. Conversely the economic reforms of the 1980s had failed in their main objective - to bypass Solidarity. By creating some nomenklatura capitalism however, these economic reforms instilled in the communists the confidence that they could subsist in a Poland they did not entirely control. Consequently, the communist elite could genuinely negotiate with Solidarity. Both sides felt the need but also the strength to compromise.

The limited power-sharing that emerged from the 1989 Round Table was however immediately destroyed by the June elections. Solidarity replaced the communists in power, but they retained control of the economy. First among the post-communist countries, Poland faced what became the familiar specter of gridlock between a reformist-led democracy and a nomenklatura-led economy, both stagnating together. Poland avoided the actual enactment of this scenario for three main reasons:

  • First, electoral extinction provided the Polish post-communists with the incentives needed to become genuine social democrats
  • Second, fear turned their majority in the "contract parliament" of 1989 into effective fellow-travelers for radical economic reform, enabling the introduction of the "shock therapy" program in 1990
  • Finally, Polish "shock therapy" was primarily designed to contain the monopoly power of the large state firms, and did so successfully, particularly by calling up the millions of small and medium firms that have enveloped the mastodons and generated strong growth ever since

As a democracy, Poland understood that bold economic reform meant sharp recession, and it was the first post-communist country to face the challenge of sustaining market reform with declining political support. To push through market reforms, Poland used two main political devices: (1) frequent elections (8 between 1989 and 1997) which gave the major players - post-communists and post-Solidarity actors alike - the perception that they could defend their interests in politics; and (2) President Lech Walesa rejected purges of ex-communists while simultaneously paying attention to the "left leg" of Polish politics. This latter policy in particular blunted any temptation by Poland's "post-communist fifth" to sabotage economic reform. The payoff has been that every Polish government has stuck to the pro-democracy market basic reforms laid down in 1989-1990. As a result, despite all the continuing ambiguities and frequent regime turnovers, Poland has sustained enough economic growth to cushion the new system and marginalize both political radicalism and criminal capitalism.

The neighboring Czech Republic provides an excellent counter-example to the Polish scenario. Starting with the same problems and a distinctive mix of many of the same assets, the Czech Republic also made a bold beginning. A decade later however, Czech democracy is immobilized in an odd alliance of center-right and social democrats, corruption and criminal capitalism swell, and economic reform and economic performance slow, while a utopia of small-town Central Europe begins to overlay "Europe." The "legislative tornado" underway to adapt to the European Union may still buoy the country past the point where a slack economy drags democracy down with it. What this means in effect is that the Czech Republic is coming to resemble Russia more than Poland. In Russia, too, democratic reform outpaced economic reform, criminal capitalism rushed in, an election has now produced a Russian version of the Czech right-left alliance, and its first priority appears to be a "legislative tornado" toward the market. The utopia will be the regained dignity of great-power status, but like the Czech Republic, Russia needs to catch up in economic reform in order to re-right the balance with political democracy and consolidate both. Meanwhile, Poland - neither a small town nor a great power - has at last worked its way quietly into market democratic Europe.

Thomas W. Simons, Jr. spoke at an EES Discussion on May 11, 2000

About the Author

Thomas W. Simons, Jr.

Visiting Scholar, the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard
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Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program addresses vital issues affecting Europe’s relations with the rest of the world through scholars-in-residence, seminars, international conferences and publications. These programmatic activities cover wide-ranging topics include: European energy security, the role of the European Union and NATO, democratic transitions, and counter-terrorism, among others. The program also investigates comparatively European approaches to policy issues of importance to the United States, including migration, global governance, and relations with Russia, China and the Middle East.  Read more