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Poland in 2006

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Poland in 2006

Area: 312,685 sq km (120,728 sq mi)
Population (2006 est.): 38,136,000
Capital: Warsaw
Chief of state: President Lech Kaczynski
Head of government: Prime Ministers Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz and, from July 14, Jaroslaw Kaczynski

In 2006 the Polish government, led by the Law and Justice party (PiS), actively sought to introduce radical changes, restore the state administration, and cleanse it from the previous informal network of links with politicians, businessmen, organized-crime figures, and mass media executives. In the first half of the year, the government disbanded the Military Information Services and established the Central Anticorruption Bureau and the Financial Supervisory Commission. In addition, the government established closer liaison with the public media and introduced a measure that would expand the list of public persons subject to vetting. The PiS leadership pledged to retain for Poland “full sovereignty in culture and morals” by defending traditional values. At the same time, welfare protection was increased through an enhanced social budget and by distribution of EU funds to support the poorest regions.

To achieve these goals, PiS, a minority party, in February signed a “stabilization pact” and in April formed a coalition with two small parties, Self-Defense (SO) and the League of Polish Families (LPR), whose leaders became deputy prime ministers. Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, a popular prime minister since October 2005, was replaced in July by PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the twin brother of Pres. Lech Kaczynski. In October the ruling coalition was reactivated, and SO leader Andrzej Lepper, who had been dropped from the government, was given back a deputy prime ministership. In local elections held on November 12 and 26 PiS managed to retain a slight lead over the largest of the opposition parties, the liberal-centrist Civic Platform, which, however, won the mayorship of Warsaw. Of the other opposition groups, the Polish Peasant Party did surprisingly well, but the bloc consisting of the Democratic Left Alliance and the Democrats did not. The SO and LPR suffered defeat.

In foreign policy, the government focused on reducing Poland’s dependence on Russian energy supplies by diversifying energy sources and investing heavily in the modernization of the domestic energy sector. A project to build an undersea gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, bypassing Poland, met with open resentment. Relations with Germany remained strained under the shadow of the countries’ painful shared history and also as a result of the often coarse attacks of the German press on the Kaczynski twins. Uneasy relations with Germany and Russia, together with the traditionalist stance of the coalition parties, provoked internal frustration and foreign criticism that painted Poland in nationalistic, populist, and conservative colours and drove a wider wedge between Poland and liberal Western Europe.

As a staunch ally of the United States, Poland pledged to maintain its troops—although in reduced numbers—in Iraq through the end of 2007 and to send 1,000 troops to Afghanistan by early 2007. Poland also agreed to place a contingent in Lebanon. In the second year of Poland’s European Union membership, a number of issues created friction between Warsaw and Brussels, among them the value-added-tax dispute, banking mergers, and energy-security policy. In December, Poland vetoed a renewal of the EU-Russia partnership agreement because of the Russian ban on meat imports from Poland. On the other hand, the absorption of EU funds and cooperation with Belarus and Ukraine were successful. An October survey showed that 72% of Poles were pleased with EU membership and only 6% were against.

The enthusiastic reception given to Pope Benedict XVI on his visit to Poland in May was somewhat overshadowed by accusations of collaboration by some Roman Catholic priests with the former communist secret services. The split between Poland’s liberal, pro-European circles and the right-wing church faction represented, for example, by the radio station Radio Maryja also deepened.

Poland’s economy was strong, with GDP expected to reach about 5.2% by the end of the year. The unemployment rate dropped to 15.2% but was still the highest in the EU. The check on inflation, a lower budget deficit of 2.1%, and a lower debt-to-GDP ratio of 42.4%, together with an increase of 16.9% in exports, a 13% rise in imports, and easy passage of the 2007 draft budget all gave rise to optimism, even in the absence of tax reforms and increased social benefits. Thanks in part to its EU accession, Poland was classified among the most attractive investment destinations.

Two new national heroes were hailed in 2006; Robert Kubica became the first Pole to drive in Formula 1 auto racing (for the BMW team in the Hungarian Grand Prix in August), and in October, Agata Szymczewska won the 13th International Henryk Wieniawski Violin Competition in Poznan.

Andrzej Jaroszynski