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Last updated : Nov 2009
Poland History
Poland History - TravelPuppy.com
For much of the medieval and early modern period, Poland was one of the biggest states in Europe, although generally cut off from the mainstream of European life. By the 18th century, however, the combination of an outdated social structure, the emergence of powerful neighbours, a king with no real power and a parliament that was able to veto any legislation if so much as one member voted against it (the Liberum Veto) had reduced Poland to the role of little more than a confused buffer state between Austria, Prussia and Russia. One observer had commented on how the Polish state had ‘legalised anarchy and called it a constitution.’

The situation was at last resolved between 1772 and 1795, when – as a result of three partition treaties signed by Austria, Prussia and Russia – the country was carved up. A small area around Warsaw briefly enjoyed a form of independence between 1807 and 1831 – as the Grand Duchy of Warsaw and Congress Poland – but later became a province of Russia. Poland did not acquire independence again until 1918. In 1926, a military regime ousted the civilian administration and it governed Poland until the country was once more dismembered by its powerful neighbours, Germany and the Soviet Union, after the 1939 Anti-Aggression Pact between the two. Preceding commitments by Britain to defend Polish sovereignty led the former to declare war on Germany and initiate World War II.

In 1941, Germany drove the USSR out of Poland, to be ejected, in turn, by the Soviets 4 years later. At the end of World War II, the Soviet-backed Polish Workers’ Party formed a coalition government under Wladyslaw Gomulka, until he was dismissed in 1948 for ‘deviationism’. In the same year, the Polish Workers’ Party combined with the Polish Socialist Party to form Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza (Polish United Workers’ Party, PZPR). In 1956, 3 years after Stalin’s death, Gomulka returned in the midst of growing unrest to implement a plan of gradual liberalisation of society and the economy. Following disturbances in the industrial port of Gdansk, Gomulka was replaced as the First Secretary of the party by Edward Gierek. Opposition to the regime was, significantly, led by elements of the industrial work force – in contrast to movements anywhere else in Eastern Europe which were led by intellectuals, such as Charter 77 – and supported by the Catholic Church, a major political force in Poland that the communists had never been able to fully suppress.

This was a very important factor in the rapid growth of the Solidarnosc (Solidarity) labour movement in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The PZPR’s first response to this challenge was confused. Neither Gierek nor his successor, Stanislav Kania, proved able to bring to an end the growth of Solidarnosc or the declining of the PZPR. In 1981, with the support of Moscow, the former army chief-of-staff, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, replaced Kania and imposed martial law. Solidarnosc was banned and its senior figures were detained, including its leader, shipyard electrician Lech Walesa.

The early 1980s saw a tense stand-off between the unions and the state. Eventually, the advent of the Gorbachev era in the Soviet Union made an accommodation between the two sides practicable. In 1988, following the virtual collapse of the economy, the PZPR government resigned and opened bona fide negotiations with Solidarnosc on economic and constitutional reforms. Solidarnosc was legalised in 1989, paving the way for elections to the new bicameral National Assembly in June of that year.

Not unpredictably, Solidarnosc swept the board in the one-third of seats it was allowed to contest. Tadeusz Mazowiecki became the first non-communist prime minister of a Warsaw-Pact country. General Jaruzelski was elected again as president. This was the high-water mark for Solidarnosc: over the following years the whole of eastern Europe shed its communist governments, the collapse of the Soviet Union itself followed shortly after.

Poland now found itself in a completely new political and economic environment and this brought about the implosion of Solidarnosc in the form of a deep split - mostly over economic policy - between supporters of Walesa and of Mazowiecki. Both stood at the first fully free presidential election in November 1990. Walesa won, and Mazowiecki was replaced as the prime minister by Jan Krysztof Bielecki. Elections to the National Assembly was in October 1991. In all the 29 parties, including the Friends of Beer, gained representation in the Sejm (lower house of the national assembly). Since then, the number of parties has been made more manageable - and stable government a more feasible proposition - by the introduction of a 5% threshold.

The bitter and closely fought 1995 presidential campaign rutted Walesa against the ex-communist and government negotiator with Solidarnosc, Alexander Kwasniewski, standing for the Democratic Left Alliance. Against most predictions, Kwasniewski won in the head-to-head run-off against the former trade union leader. Walesa’s defeat astonished many in the West who failed to appreciate how unpopular he had become at home. Kwasniewski also comfortably won the presidential poll in 2000. In 2001, the DLA also reclaimed control of the Sejm from a coalition of centre-right parties which had formed the government since 1997. The election also brought a threatening development in the rise of a new far-right party, Samoobrona (Self Defence), which espouses a populist, xenophobic platform.

Throughout the 1990s, and since, there has been little difference in the principal policies of the main political blocs: securing entry into both NATO and the EU. As the biggest of the former Eastern European states, Poland’s position is critical. Both the objectives have now been achieved. Poland joined NATO in July 1997 and the EU in May 2004. In spite of that, there are some outstanding issues which have been left for resolution at a later date and may have a major bearing on Polish politics. These include subsidies for Poland’s substantial agricultural sector, which are comparatively underdeveloped, free labour movement and the country’s poor record on pollution.

Elections to both the presidency and the Sejm are due in the year 2005. The Democratic Left Alliance has been gradually losing its popularity, especially in its rural heartlands to Samoobrona, and is unlikely to be involved in the next government.