Leading Article: Poland deserves support

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The Independent Online
THE MESSAGE the Polish prime minister, Hanna Suchocka, brings to Britain is that her country, the largest in Eastern Europe, is overcoming its economic problems and represents a good bet for potential investors. She is right. The phrase that recurs in current assessments, including her own, is that the worst is over. The shock therapy of price deregulation and monetary control applied to the economy by the first post-Communist finance minister, Leszek Balcerowicz, created a severe recession. But it killed hyper-inflation, obliged Polish companies to find new export markets in the West, and made possible a convertible zloty, releasing the Poles' entrepreneurial energies on to the domestic market as well. Mr Balcerowicz will surely be seen as a hero of Eastern Europe's transition to a market economy and to democracy.

Huge economic problems remain. Unemployment is rising towards 3 million, or 16 per cent of the labour force, and perhaps a third of the population is living in conditions of poverty. The shipbuilding, copper and coal industries urgently need restructuring. Yet, alone among former Soviet bloc countries, Poland expects 2 per cent growth this year. A tight budget has furthermore been passed that should win approval from the International Monetary Fund for substantial additional loans. There is a growing sense that, as Mrs Suchocka commented to our correspondent before leaving for London, Poland has turned the corner.

Compared with their main competitors, Hungary and what was Czechoslavakia, the Poles have enjoyed some advantages. For a start, they were exceptionally resistant to the Communist ethos. Thanks in part to the role of the Catholic church as a symbol of nationhood, their spirit remained unbroken. It helped, too, that - except for the large estates seized from the Germans - agriculture remained in private hands, and millions of Poles had relatives in the West.

Ethnically, too, they are fortunate. Hungary is torn over how to defend its beleaguered minorities in neighbouring countries. Slovakia and the Czech lands have severed their union. The Poles have a few problems with those claiming to be ethnic Germans, and they worry about Poles in Lithuania and west Ukraine. But they have had no serious distractions on that front. With Hungary, Bohemia and Moravia, they have also been lucky that the Germans made such a mess of unification. Through a series of miscalculations, the Bonn government removed the few comparative advantages of the new Lander, making German investment in the three neighbouring countries more attractive.

None the less, plenty of worries remain. Among them are the fragility of Mrs Suchocka's coalition and the danger of economic collapse in nearby parts of the former Soviet Union. Mrs Suchocka is surely justified in believing that this is not taken seriously enough in the West. Were it to take place, Poland's relative stability and economic success might attract hundreds of thousands of unwanted economic refugees.

The best preventive measure is not just judicious help for the former Soviet republics, but maximum support of all kinds for Poland itself, notably in opening up EC markets to its exports and paving the way for membership. Poland has worked hard for its success. It deserves to be rewarded.

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