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“Poles lack things to be proud of,” says Bartosz Weglarczyk, foreign editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s second biggest-selling daily newspaper. “Our food makes you fat and our football team is rubbish. But the way that our country coped with the Smolensk tragedy is something of which we as a nation can truly be proud.”

Among the 96 killed were a number of its leading political and intellectual figures, including the president, Lech Kaczynski, when their plane crashed just short of the runway at Russia’s Smolensk Airport in April. Poles got through those dark days by displaying tremendous stoicism and a remarkable solidarity that, at least briefly, put political differences aside. Black humour also helped. One of the jokes currently doing the rounds in Warsaw asks, “How many Poles does it take to cut down a tree?” The answer: “96 and one plane”.

In the July presidential elections that followed the crash, Poles elected the moderate Bronislaw Komorowski, instead of giving the sympathy vote to the late president’s twin brother, Jaroslaw. Lech’s right-wing policies had been deeply unpopular among progressive Poles, and it’s hard to find a young person in Warsaw who voted for Jaroslaw.

The hope is that the new political era will result in more conciliatory policies at home and abroad. The changed mood in Polish foreign policy is most visible in the country’s relations with Russia. Since the end of the Cold War, Warsaw and Moscow have been locked in one of the nastiest diplomatic disputes on the European continent, unable to shake the burden of history from contemporary relations. But Russia’s sympathetic reaction to the plane crash has had a dramatic impact on the relationship.

“It was shocking in a positive way,” says Weglarczyk. “I can’t stand Putin. I think he has the heart of a dictator, but I truly admire what he did after the crash. I think it was the Slavic soul coming out.”

Andrzej Halicki, the chairman of the Polish parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, compares the first signs of progress with Moscow to the building of trust with another old foe. “Just look at our relations now with Germany,” he says from his offices inside the parliament in Warsaw. “Before, nobody could have imagined that we’d have open borders, no limitations on trade, free movement. With Russia we needed a first step.”

After the election there was a poll to ask Poles who they thought should be the first world leader to visit Warsaw. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev came in first place, the Pope was second and Barack Obama languished in third. This extraordinary result suggests that things might really have changed for the better between Warsaw and Moscow. Many Polish politicians now say that the cosying up to Washington during Kaczynski’s tenure will also be carefully recalibrated.

“Americans are far away from us, so we have to build our security and foreign relations on the European continent first,” says Halicki. One of President Komorowski’s big ambitions is for Warsaw to play a key role in the negotiations for further EU enlargement. “Without the round-table talks in Poland in 1989, the history of Europe would be very different,” says Halicki. “I think that during the next [few] years we can achieve a second decade of enlargement on the European continent, and Poland has an important role to play.”

Economically, things also look bright for the Poles. The only EU country not to go into recession during the financial turmoil of the past two years, Poland’s relative success was the result of some canny government policies, and more importantly, the immaturity of the Polish banking sector, which proved to be a blessing in disguise. “We simply hadn’t managed to catch the bus that drove off the cliff,” remarks one Polish financier wryly.

There has also been a focus on small businesses and entrepreneurship. “A very important difference between Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries is that during communist times, private farms were allowed here,” says Marek Kloczko, the secretary ­general of the Polish Chamber of Commerce. “Around 75 per cent of land ­remained in private hands, which meant that at the fall of communism there were over a million people who at least in some way were small businessmen.” The temporary economic migration of millions of Poles to Europe when Poland entered the EU in 2004 – once viewed as a “brain drain” – is now reaping rewards. Many of the migrants are ­returning to Poland, complete with language skills and experience in the West.

“You can see the effect just by looking at the service sector in Warsaw and other big cities,” says Jaroslaw Janecki, an economist with Société Générale in Warsaw. “There are so many new restaurants and bars set up by people who have seen a nice café in London or pub in Dublin and have come back and recreated it here. A few years ago, there was nothing like that.”

Boguslaw Krysinski studied at ­Cambridge and UCLA, before working for leading investment banks in the City of London. He returned in 2008 to oversee the merger of two Polish banks, and is now in the process of setting up a company that will buy portfolios of non-­performing loans.

The 32-year-old Krysinski is part of a club of around 50 successful businessmen, who meet monthly to discuss ideas and start-up plans.

“There are still pockets of opportunity here where you can make a lot of money,” he says. “It’s far more exciting to come back to Poland and be entrepreneurial than to stay in London working for a big organisation.” Friends of Krysinski’s have similar stories – one London-trained lawyer has returned to Warsaw and now has his own legal chambers at the age of 32.

Warsaw was flattened during the war and has long been regarded as the ugly sister among the pretty Central European capitals. But the city has an energy and vitality about it that reflects the new mood of optimism in Poland. “Warsaw is a very special place – you could say it’s one of the last European capitals that hasn’t been designed yet,” says Sebastian Cichocki, an enthusiastic young curator who runs Warsaw Under Construction, a festival that brings together architects, developers and designers to discuss future visions for the city.

Most pressing is what to do with the central Defilad Square, dominated by the Palace of Culture and Science – a neo-Gothic skyscraper modelled on the Seven Sisters in Moscow; Stalin’s unwanted gift to Warsaw. Plans include a vast new Museum of Modern Art, designed by Swiss architect Christian Kerez, which will be one of the largest museums in Europe when it opens in 2014. It will be the first state-run art museum to open in Poland since 1938.

“Poland was one of the more liberal countries under communism – we didn’t have to start from scratch like they did in Romania, for example,” says Joanna Mytkowska, the museum’s director. “And unlike in many other countries of the region, most of our artists have stayed here, rather than gone to Paris or Berlin.”

This creativity is visible in the nightlife scene. At 5.10.15. (named after a communist-era children’s television programme) a semi-derelict tenement building now houses bars, crafts workshops, pop-up galleries and boutiques.

While the new face of Poland is young, creative and entrepreneurial, this is still a country that is divided along a number of fault lines – East and West, religious conservatives and moderates, and perhaps most potently, young and old. However admirably Poles closed ranks and came together in the aftermath of the crisis, it didn’t take long for the cracks to reappear. The most visible manifestation of this was the nightly confrontations in central Warsaw during August between supporters of a wooden cross honouring the late president and those who wanted to see it removed. The hope is that these divides will begin to subside with time.

“In many ways, Poland is a mirror image of Spain 30 or 40 years ago,” claims Wally Olins, the branding guru whose Saffron Consultants has worked for the Polish government over the past decade. “It historically had tremendous influence and power, but fell into decline. Like Spain, it has around 40 million people, is very Catholic and very entrepreneurial. It now has a great chance to emerge as the leader of a bloc of countries that has no leader for now.”

Open minds

Gay rights in Warsaw

Poland is a deeply Catholic country but social mores are more liberal than perhaps anywhere else in Central and Eastern Europe, at least in the major cities. Holding EuroPride, Europe’s biggest gay parade, in Warsaw this summer seemed like a risky idea at best. But despite a small, noisy counter-protest, the July event went off more smoothly than events in other countries in the region, which have often been marred by violence.

“Ten years ago, if two men were kissing in the street they’d be attacked,” says Sarmen Beglarian, the curator of the yearly Wola Art Festival. “Five years ago it was already kind of normal, and now we can have a parade in central Warsaw.”

Ninety-seven per cent of Poles describe themselves as Catholic, and naturally this makes gay rights issues controversial, as well as in vitro fertilisation and abortion. But among Polish Catholics there is a sharp divide between conservatives and a sizeable minority, mostly young Poles, who have much more liberal opinions.

Euro 2012

Football hopes

Poland hopes that the 2012 European Football Championship, which it will host jointly with Ukraine, will help attract visitors to see that it has a lot more to offer than just the stag-night destination of Krakow. Games will be played in Warsaw, Gdansk, Wroclaw and Poznan. Three of the stadia will be new. “There has been tremendous spending in road infrastructure, which will benefit the country, but the technology and IT sector lags behind and this could prove problematic,” says Jaroslaw Janecki of Société Générale. “As always with these events, there’s also a question of how useful all the construction will be after the tournament is over.”

Five things the Poles do well

Service industry
Smiling barmen and helpful waitresses, almost all fluent in English, make a welcome change from the grimaces in neighbouring countries.

Art centre
Lodz’s Modern Art Museum is one of the world’s oldest, and with Warsaw’s vast new museum opening in 2014, Poland is becoming an exciting destination.

Boats and yachts
Poland is the region’s top producer of small sailboats and yachts, from small family workshops to major producers such as Delphia.

Roman Polanski, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Andrzej Wajda. Polish directors have had an influence around the world.

Café culture
Old and independent coffee shops can often be found in Poland’s cities; big global chains have struggled to make an impact.

Five things the Poles could improve

Tourists go to Krakow but there is much more on offer, such as pristine beaches and towns such as Wroclaw.

Airline hub
National carrier LOT is fine but could better capitalise on Poland’s location at the heart of Europe and turn the country into a transit hub.

Construction brand
Polish plumbers and carpenters have wowed western Europe. The nation should capitalise on this.

Multilingual workforce on a similar timezone to western Europe provides endless possibilities for outsourcing.

Poles will insist vodka isn’t Russian at all, but Polish. Marketing campaigns for top brands could boost their international popularity.

×Culture with Robert Bound


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