It’s been a rather rough three centuries for this formerly largest and one of the most powerful countries in Europe. During its golden age, Poland – or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, occupied Moscow, ejected the Turks from the gates of Vienna, avoided religious persecutions and wars as well as monarchical absolutism, hosted Europe’s largest and wealthiest Jewish minority, and thrived on aristocratic anarchy. Then it all went to shits, mostly because the said aristocratic anarchy had hindered the development of a strong, modern state that could stand up to its increasingly powerful neighbours: the Hohenzollern Prussia, the Hapsburg Austria and the Romanov Russia. First came a century of foreign domination and despoilment, followed by the three partitions that saw Poland extinguished as a nation for 123 years. The end of World War One brought independence and a turbulent interwar interregnum filled with internal strife and a stillborn democratic experiment. The fourth partition between the Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939 led to a brutal occupation in which one sixth of the population perished, followed in turn by 45 years under the communist yoke as a Soviet satellite. By 1989, when the first democratic election post war resulted in a non-communist government, Poland was clearly long overdue for a break.
Now, nearly thirty years later, tough decisions and hard work, including the economic “shock therapy” of the early 1990s, are paying off:
FTSE Russell, the UK provider of stock market indices owned by the London Stock Exchange, moved Poland to the “developed market” category on September 24.
The promotion is the first FTSE Russell has made in nearly a decade and also marks the first ever upgrade to developed status for a country located in CEE.
Poland is the region’s biggest economy by far, having also increased its per capita income from around a third of the Western Europe in early 1990s to 70% in 2017. Poland’s economy more than doubled in size since joining the EU in 2004.
Poland is now in the 26th year of uninterrupted economic growth, generally at rates well above the European average – of the developed nations, only Australia can equal and slightly surpass that record. The country has managed to thrive under – or maybe despite of – a succession of left wing, centre-right and very right governments. Some help but none can fortunately halt the Polish renaissance.
I left Poland in 1987, two years before the end of communism, when no one expected it would last only two more years. When I first returned ten years later, Poland was free but needless to say still quite run down. It felt like a poor cousin of the West, certainly only to be expected after decades of destruction and retarding policies. When I visited again last year, one of the first and the main impressions to strike me was how much the four major cities are visited (but especially the capital Warsaw and the tourist capital Krakow) felt like any other Western European cities I have been to recently, from Amsterdam to Cologne. Poland is not there yet; it will take longer than 30 years to catch up to the rest of Europe – to move from that 70% to 100% and beyond. Rural areas and small towns, in particular, still lag behind. But the achievement so far has been remarkable. People I’ve met grumbled, which is a long-standing national habit, but were all doing OK by any objective standards, much less the standards of modern Polish history. The booming economy has attracted between one and two million Ukrainians and Belorussians to fill the demand for workers. The political scene is infuriating – perhaps the most infuriating aspect of contemporary Poland, yet it is also encouraging that the country continues to progress regardless – as it should be.
Developed world, here we come.