Poland's Bitter Spring

The April 10 crash of the plane carrying President Lech Kaczynski and scores of other Polish dignitaries shook Poland to its core. Professor John Micgiel looks at the aftermath—and the significance of the plane's destination.

by John Micgiel Published Summer 2010
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With a second wave of rain and flooding in early June, the weather may well be a determinant in the outcome of the election. A perceived misstep by the government or by Komorowski could have serious consequences. And Poles are notorious for acting contrary to electoral forecasts. (The late president was behind in the polls until election day.) Whoever wins will be part of the team that will not only lead Poland, but serve as the president of the Council of the European Union from July 1, 2011, through December 31, 2011. This is an unprecedented opportunity to wield real influence on EU decisions, including those that affect relations between the EU and Russia. The stakes are therefore high, as the newly elected Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban demonstrated by choosing Warsaw for his first postinauguration foreign visit on May 31. Hungary will precede Poland in the EU presidency and the two countries have been discussing and coordinating their priorities since 2008.

As I approach Marszalkowska Street, one of Warsaw’s main thoroughfares, a red Ferrari blasts by. For a few years I’ve been seeing fancy cars, new apartment and office buildings, and well-dressed Varsovians chatting away on cell phones. Poland’s economic health is remarkably robust: It is the only country in Europe to show growth in 2009, and both inflation and unemployment are low. People have forgotten that when Lech Walesa became president in 1990, a Polish citizen had to wait 56 years for an apartment in a co-op.

While life in the capital is good, at least for the moneyed class, most Poles, and certainly those in the east and other rural areas, are not driving BMWs. Many are struggling and will continue to struggle after the floods recede, the plane crash investigation is concluded, and relations with Russia warm or cool. That, of course, will be the great challenge once the new president is sworn in.

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