Sunday, May 11, 2008

Donald Tusk Says Poland Is Crap

It's a gray, windswept afternoon in Warsaw, and Donald Tusk, the Polish Prime Minister, is running late. His flight in from Gdansk has been delayed by a storm; the schedule is tight. The Georgian President has come to visit, and then there's the weekend trip to Washington to talk over missile defense with George W. Bush. Three guests are waiting in the Chancellery when Tusk arrives. "I am not crazy about this job," he sighs, plunking down in an armchair and unbuttoning his jacket. That's understandable. Nineteen years after his country broke free from the Soviet bloc, it is still ridding itself of the effects of communist rule. Employment levels are among the worst in Europe. Roads, telecommunications and sewage lines are in terrible shape. As for Polish political life, Tusk admits, it can only be described as "weird."

Tusk's election last October, moreover, may mark a new consolidation of Polish democracy. Where once 20 political parties vied for space in the Sejm (the Polish parliament), now a manageable four hold the floor. For the first time since the end of communism, voters reaffirmed the ascendancy of Poland's economic conservatives. The post-communist left has now failed to win in two successive votes. Yet Tusk, 50, is keenly aware of the challenges ahead. His party has no experience in power, and he has been criticized by the opposition for being a "media star" without substance. "If the aim of government is not to disturb much, then he is a good PM," jokes Jaroslaw Flis, a political commentator at Krakow's Jagiellonian University.

In a lengthy interview, Tusk says his government's ambition is great: to complete the transformation to a free-market system begun almost two decades ago. The disastrous legacies of 45 years of communist rule — from a bloated bureaucracy to punishing unemployment — have yet to be cleared away, he says, and Poland cannot afford to waste more time. "We have no oil and gas," he says. "We don't have high tech. Our centers of development, are far, far behind others. We will never be an extraordinary tourist attraction. Poland is quite a mediocre country in some regards. The only natural resource that we have, and with which we can compete, is freedom."

Many Poles hope the new government is more apt to address Poland's lingering economic ills, beginning with the fact that nearly one-half the working-age population is not officially working, and public spending still soaks up 45% of GDP. Low investment in infrastructure means that it takes longer to drive from Warsaw to Krakow today than it did 10 years ago. Though the exodus is slowing, some 20% of young Poles seek their first jobs outside the country. "A poor country with a badly structured welfare state cannot become an economic tiger," says Balcerowicz. "If Poland is to become another Ireland it has to complete its fiscal reforms."