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Poland: a country getting to grips with being normal at last


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"Rutinoscorbin is like the sixth member of our family!" an implausibly gleaming model mother chirps from the television, in one of many American-style commercials for health products.

Outside, in the spring sunshine, BMWs and Mercedes glide past freshly painted facades and smart coffee shops. Young Poles send text messages using neo-Polish words such as trendi, seksi and kul. Half the old friends I want to meet up with are abroad: in the European parliament, in Paris, on the Canary Islands.

Being in Warsaw these days is like being in Madrid or Rome. It's normal. Except that for Poland, this normal is profoundly abnormal; the ordinary, extraordinary.

Less than a lifetime ago, the whole city centre was razed to the ground by Hitler's troops after the heroic, doomed Warsaw rising of 1944. Those handsome facades you see in the famous Old Town have all been reconstructed. A writer of my acquaintance used to say, with some poetic exaggeration, that the oldest things in Warsaw are the trees in the Lazienki park.

Less than 30 years ago, I stood on what was then called Victory Square (now Pilsudski Square) and watched angry protesters from the Solidarity movement defying the communist riot police. "Why are they chanting 'Gestapo'?" exclaimed an elderly bystander. "It should be 'SS'!" But now, incredibly, when teenage Poles want to text "Send me an SMS", they tap out "Send me an esesman".

This new Poland has just joined the "pact for the euro". If the euro survives, and things go on as they are, Poland will be in the eurozone long before Britain is. Its economy had a growth rate of 3.8% in 2010, one of the best in Europe. It takes the rotating presidency of the EU in the second half of this year. It is a member of Nato, and has troops in Afghanistan. On the surface, it looks more and more like a western consumer society, with mortgages, private insurance schemes, television celebrities and entertainment culture. The new cults of health and fitness – as propagated in all those TV commercials – increasingly supplant the old ones of church and nation.

Yet neither the Poles nor outsiders can quite believe the transformation is for real – and some don't like it even if it is. A few years ago, a British branding consultancy was asked by the Polish chamber of commerce to come up with a suggested new brand for Poland's national identity. This is itself a sign of the times. In the past, Poland created its brand by mounting an armed insurrection against Russian rule, and then having romantic poets such as Adam Mickiewicz immortalise the martrydom of this "Christ among nations". Now it hires a branding consultant.

I have Saffron Brand Consultants' 2005 report before me as I write. It suggests that the "core idea" of Poland's national brand should be "creative tension". Cognitive dissonance would be another way of putting it. There is the "normal" of contemporary Europe: the consumer society you see on the streets of central Warsaw and the TV screen. And there is the "normal" of most of modern Polish history: partition, occupation, unfreedom, ethnic conflict, economic distress, the blending of patriotism, romanticism and religion. As recently as 1983, Britain's leading historian of modern Poland, Norman Davies, could write that his second homeland was "back in its usual condition of political defeat and economic chaos".

Apart from historical unfamiliarity, there are several other reasons why many Poles can't quite accept that this new normal is really it. The most important is that for many of them, everyday life in today's Poland is light years away from the images conveyed in Polish TV commercials, or the prosperous scenes you see in central Warsaw. This is still a poor country by European standards. Income per head is about £11,600, less than in Barbados or the Seychelles, and only just above half the EU average. Unemployment last year was 11.8%, and youth unemployment is even higher. Most of my former Polish students say that they will not go back to Poland in the foreseeable future. There are so many better opportunities in what they still call "the west".

My friends from years back, members of what used to be known as the intelligentsia (a class that is rapidly ceasing to exist), may be doing well, but many Poles are not. They have had a tough time over the years of transition since the end of communism in 1989. Talk to the former shipyard workers in Gdansk, who started the Solidarity revolution in 1980, and some spit blood at what they see as the injustice and hardship of the last two decades. Among other scapegoats, they blame backroom deals between former communists and left-leaning leaders of the anti-communist opposition, corruption, conspiracy, and sinister outside powers.

The political scientist Richard Hofstadter famously wrote about The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Polish politics are no stranger to the paranoid style. In the last decade this was cultivated particularly by the Law and Justice party (PiS), led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his twin brother Lech – who was, until his death in a plane crash near Smolensk last April, the country's president. The paranoid style will be on full display next Sunday, when Poland marks the first anniversary of that crash, which killed not only Kaczynski and his wife, but also 94 others, including top commanders of the country's armed forces and the head of the national bank.

The fact that they died in the fog at a poorly equipped Russian airport, on their way to a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre of Polish officers by Stalin's thugs, has fed old-style patriotic-religious martyrology. And Russia's chronic inability to deliver a full, fair and frank account of the circumstances of the crash has also nourished conspiracy theories. A woman I know only slightly approached me in the cafe of the Hotel Bristol to ask if I thought the plane could have been downed in "artificial fog", deliberately created by the Russians. I received an email from someone saying he could prove that everyone on the plane had been killed before it even took off from Warsaw.

Of course, most Poles don't succumb to such craziness. A survey conducted for Polish Radio last month found that a large majority of those asked wanted the anniversary to be a day of national unity in shared grief. At the moment, though, it looks as if there will be rival commemorations and even demonstrations by different groups.

Beyond Sunday, however, and beyond this special case, there is a larger question about the story Poland wants to tell to itself and the world. For much of modern history, Poland's central narrative was a heroic-tragic story of struggles for freedom. The white eagle, pierced by Russian and German arrows, bled red blood – producing the national colours of red and white. Then, after the negotiated revolution of 1989, there was the "return to Europe". For 15 years, domestic arguments were subordinated to the overarching national purpose of returning to Europe and the west. But now Poland has got there, having joined Nato in 1999 and the EU in 2004, the question is: what next? Where now?

We don't know how Poland will answer, but it's a fair bet that somewhere in the mix will be stubbornness, enterprise, individualism, a distrust of authority and a love of freedom.

Already, Poland tries to apply its experience of struggles for freedom, and the transition to democracy, for the benefit of others. It is one of the strongest European supporters of freedom for Belarus and EU membership for Ukraine. Its calm, pragmatic prime minister, Donald Tusk, and energetic, Oxford-educated foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, want to use the Polish presidency of the EU, starting in July, to apply lessons learned from the EU's eastern neighbourhood to help the EU's southern neighbourhood, in the Arab lands across the Mediterranean.

The country's avuncular president, Bronislaw Komorowski, points out that they still have, in a side wing of the presidential palace where we met, the large, specially made round table at which Poland's transition from communist rule was negotiated. He would, he added half-jokingly, be happy to lend it to some Arab country struggling to emerge from the shadow of dictatorship.

Thirty years ago, few would have believed that Poland could be the "normal" country it is today. Egypt, take hope

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Quite old article.

Poland is not a normal country. Politicians are stupid, inflation is killing us. Look at the price of petrol. 5.50zl for one liter of e95 whereas the price of oil has decreased. Taking into consideration all the shit that is going on with Iran, the price will get even higher. Everything is freaking expensive and it's still getting higher whereas salaries are still on the same lvl as they used to be for the past three years. To sum it up, Poland is not a normal country.

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yeah f***ing petrol is so expensive, in comparison to hmm germany, if you got a job there u can earn about 1500 euro, in poland let's say the same 1500 zl, and the 1 litre of petrol here costs 6zl wheras in germany it is 1.5 euro,

the same is with food, local transport, etc.


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