Poland: History, Politics, Economy, and Foreign Policy


The Republic of Poland today is one of the major actors in the European Union, NATO, and regional as well as global affairs. This predominantly Catholic parliamentary democracy comprises 312,000 sq. kilometers sharing borders with seven states and has a population of more than 38 million.

The main geostrategic Achilles’ heel of Poland has been its location between Russia and Germany and its lowland terrain with no natural borders for protection. Since the dissolution of the USSR, Poland has embraced a Eurocentric foreign policy. The 1999 NATO and 2004 EU accessions serve as a testament of Poland’s commitment to a “United Europe”. At the same time these policies have raised some concerns in Russia.

Poland traces its history to 965-966 A.D. when king Mieszko I rejected his pagan religion and converted into Christianity. Since then the Polish Kingdom grew in power especially during the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth period beginning in mid-16th century. Despite the initial success and regional supremacy, Poland lost its sovereignty as a result of successive partitions among Russia, Austria, and Germany in 1772, 1793, and culminating in 1795. It was not until 1918, when following the end of WWI Poland once again regained its independence that lasted until the 1939 Nazi and Soviet invasions (persisting through the end of WWII). Such historical developments left their permanent marks on the Polish psyche that define part of the national identity to this day.

Firstly, the wars that Poland fought throughout the 18 to 20th centuries reshaped the once diverse state into an ethnically homogenous polity. This further allowed for the Catholic Church to strengthen its position within the country. Secondly, the persisting memory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth underlines the contemporary regional ambitions of the Polish foreign policy. Therefore, it is important to establish some basic understanding of Polish history to better grasp the current state of affairs.

During the weeklong negotiations at the Yalta Conference, both Roosevelt and Churchill had accepted the idea that Poland should be viewed within the context of the Soviet national security. Following the end of WWII, it took Moscow about three years to fully establish communist governments throughout the east and central Europe, including Poland.

The reign of terror and persecutions lasted until the death of Stalin in 1953 and Polish Stalinist leader Bolesław Bierut in 1956. Following the deaths of Joseph Vissarionovich and Bierut a series of protest waves in 1956, ’68, ’70, ’76, and ’80 initiated by students, intelligentsia, and workers forced the communist regime in Poland to give in to successive concessions. With each round of protests the opposition was becoming increasingly competent. After the 1976 demonstrations, the Committee to Protect the Workers (KOR) was created in order to organize the opposition as well as to support the arrested activists. Starting in mid-1970s a large, active underground opposition apparatus was carrying out activities throughout Poland. In the 1980s workers in the northern coast of the country began mass protests demanding economic reforms. PZPR Solidarność, or Solidarity— a mass independent trade union— was gaining momentum. By 1982 it had over three million members, mostly industrial workers, who were capable of exerting enormous pressure on the Polish authorities.

Even before Stalin’s death Poland was already a major trading partner of Europe, especially when compared to other Eastern bloc states, comprising about 30% of its total trade turnover. Due to deep trade ties with the West and the need for modernization, the Polish authorities had accumulated large debts by borrowing from the Western European states. This process largely began in 1970 after the failed reform attempts by Edward Gierek, head of the Communist party. The situation got so desperate that by 1980 the prices were too high and the shelves of the stores were almost empty.

Poor economic growth had depleted the political capital of the Communist government. In an attempt to jumpstart the economy, the country’s leadership decided to reach out to the opposition. The Catholic Church, as a respected institution by both sides, mediated the negotiations. After seven months of public and private discussions, the two sides decided to defer the economic reform agenda and move forward with political modifications. As a compromise, it was decided to create a bicameral Parliament comprised of the Senate (upper house) and Sejm (lower house) that would jointly elect the president. The seats of the parliament were negotiated to provide the two sides with sufficient incentives to participate in the political processes and to work together. Nobody expected the communist regime to fall, yet the 1989 elections proved everyone’s expectations wrong.

Some smaller parties elected under the Communist banner proved to be “Trojan horses” and changed sides right after the elections. Thus, the anticipated (and negotiated) 65% of the Communist Party seats suddenly became 35%, providing Solidarity with the majority votes in the Polish Parliament. The new government under the leadership of Tadeusz Mazowiecki revised the Constitution of Poland and embarked on the implementation of the Balcerowicz Plan. In 1990, under the new constitution, Lech Wałęsa was popularly elected as the new President. These (unexpected) developments brought an end to the communist era in Poland and set it on a course of “rejoining Europe”.

Given the fact that Poland was under a tight grip of Moscow, it is hard to talk about a sovereign Polish foreign policy. Despite its privileged position to trade with the West, Poland was largely incapable of independently deciding its external policy.
Since 1991, Poland has gone through many administrations with varying economic and political platforms. The end of communism brought to light many political parties and fragmentation within the Parliament.

Nonetheless, NATO membership and EU candidacy may be considered as one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century Polish foreign policy. Since 1989 Poland was trying to relegate its Warsaw Pact membership and draw closer to the Euro-Atlantic community. The 1990 treaty with Germany and the withdrawal of the Russian troops from the Polish territory opened a new chapter in Polish history, full of opportunities and risks. One of the major achievements of the time was the improvement of relations with Germany. Since then the economic interdependence between the two states has been growing by each passing year turning Poland into an export-oriented economy (as part of the German value chain) with exports amounting to 46% of its GDP. These developments were not welcomed in Moscow; especially the eastward expansion of NATO being seen as a threat to Russia.
Upon becoming a member state of the EU, Poland has been working towards promoting its national interests. Firstly, large cash flows from Brussels allowed to develop critical infrastructure in the country and cut down on transportation and other costs. This facilitated an inflow of investments, especially from Germany, that have promoted a sustained economic growth in Poland. The economy was tamed after soviet and post-soviet administrations attempted implementing various economic policies. Secondly, Poland, together with Sweden, began pushing forward the Eastern Partnership Program with the vision of drawing the eastern neighbors closer to the EU.

Relations with Russia have been generally positive, but some historical strains remain. Additionally, the Nord Stream gas pipeline, the plane crash of 2010, the US plans to deploy missile defense systems in Poland, and other factors have had their toll on bilateral relations.

Since 1991 the economy of Poland has been growing primarily due to its relatively cheap labor cost as well as its proximity to and large investment flows from Germany. Graphs below depict some macroeconomic data from 1991 through 2012 (see Annexes). The red vertical line signifies Poland’s accession to the EU in 2004. These three graphs already tell a lot about the recent economic history of Poland. Except for the year 1991, the country has recorded solely positive GDP growth in the past two decades and the GDP has more than doubled through the period. Now the challenge for the country is transitioning to a high technology, value-added economy in order to make sure that the well-being of the citizens keeps increasing and the country is not stuck in the middle income trap.

On the foreign policy front Poland is fully integrated with the Euro-Atlantic community which means that the only point of concern for the official Warsaw is its eastern frontier. Recent historical developments have effectively put an end (at least for the time being) to Poland’s historical East-West divide and the country is arguably in a more advantageous and secure position today than it has ever been before.

Nevertheless, with the plans to launch the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) in 2015, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Belarus will effectively turn into one giant economic bloc. This would mean that Poland will be bordering not just Belarus and Kaliningrad separately, but rather as parts of a larger organization dominated by Russia. Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and other CIS states are likely to join the EEU by January 1, 2015 also. This fact, paralleled by the recent deployment of the “Iskander” nuclear-capable missile system in Kaliningrad, creates security threats first and foremost for Poland as it is sited the closest (beside the Baltic States). Should the relations between the West and Russia deteriorate, Poland will likely be one of the first targets for military action. Even though such a scenario is unlikely in the short- to medium-term, Poland should not waste any time in further bridging the gap between Russia as well as other former Soviet states and the European Union. Poland’s leadership in the Eastern Partnership Program as well as the recent active participation in negotiation rounds with Ukraine serve as a positive indicator that the official Warsaw realistically assesses the situation and formulates adequate foreign policy objectives that will best serve its interests.

Notwithstanding those facts, Poland can and should try to further deepen its cooperation with Russia. History and recent developments have been a cause of mutual distrust and underutilization of potential. If both sides are ready to relate to each other as equals and not regard one another as rivals then there is a possibility for improvement in relations. However, this would require political will on both sides to come up with a mutually-agreeable format for cooperation.

Rapprochement with Russia is in Poland’s national interest. It will secure Poland’s eastern borders (and energy flows) and allow for greater economic growth. Poland should work with its EU and NATO partners in trying to come up with a new framework of cooperation with Russia and the EEU at-large. A harmonious collaboration is in everyone’s interest given the growing economic, political, and security interdependence of states. Poland has proven its leadership in the Eastern Partnership Program and even by modifying the existing platform it can attempt to improve current relations.


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DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute. 


This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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