Global Economics

Urban Poles Spurn Politics for Business


Poland's city-dwellers are more interested in making money than politics and that could mean an upset for the Kaczynski twins in this weekend's elections

The mayor's office in the Polish port city of Gdansk is located in a 1960s office building, away from the city's renovated historic neighborhoods. Cables hang from the walls in the stairwell, and the air is heavy with the drabness of officialdom.

The contrast with Pavel Adamowicz's personal office is huge. The Gdansk mayor has transformed his office into a veritable museum space.

The room, with its red walls and massive carved furniture made of wood so dark it's almost black, is a throwback to the days of Gdansk's merchant barons. Copper engravings on the walls depict the 41-year-old mayor's predecessors, including the 17th-century mayors Gabriel von Bömeln and Carl Groddeck. Most of the men in this gallery of past mayors spoke German.

Gdansk, which is still known in German by its former name of Danzig, came under the jurisdiction of the Teutonic Knights in the Middle Ages, joined the Hanseatic League, was later swallowed by Prussia, became a free city in 1920 and has been part of Poland since the end of World War II. "We are not turning our backs on the city's German heritage today," says Adamowicz.

Such assurances are practically an act of courage in Poland today, especially since the Kaczynski twins have been at the helm in Warsaw -- the two leaders have taken a sharp nationalistic tone in their dealings with Germany.

But Adamowicz seems relaxed as he leans back in his antique mayor's chair. "No politician can destroy something that has developed over the years," he says, insisting that his city still enjoys an excellent relationship with the Germans, and that German investors are not deterred by the current tense relations between Warsaw and Berlin. The tourists, who haven't stopped coming to Gdansk in droves, seem to agree.

Mayor Adamowicz is practically bursting with self-confidence. The liberal politician has been running the city for the past nine years. "We benefit from Poland's membership in the European Union," he says. With assistance from Brussels, for example, he has been able to have a new container port built on a manmade island off the coast. Gdansk also enjoys a low unemployment rate of just 4.5 percent.

Chaos reigns in Warsaw politics, both domestically and abroad, and the new elections scheduled for this weekend are unlikely to lead to more stable conditions. Observers Thursday said the election race was still wide open. The latest opinion polls show the center-right opposition party Civic Platform is slightly ahead of Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski's Law and Justice, although neither party seems likely to win an outright majority. Support for Civic Platform has surged in the last few days after its leader Donald Tusk defeated Kaczynski in a televised debate.

Despite the political turmoil, the country is booming, with Gdansk only one of many examples of progress. The Polish economy will grow by more than 6 percent this year, and the unemployment rate in Poland has dropped from 19 to 12 percent since the country joined the EU.

The urban economies in the new Poland are doing especially well. Cities like Gdansk, Wroclaw and Poznan, governed by pragmatists who have carefully distanced themselves from the political wrangling in Warsaw, have almost no unemployment. Voters show their appreciation by remaining their mayors' most loyal supporters. While hardly a government has managed to garner a stable majority in Warsaw in recent years, Wroclaw Mayor Rafal Dutkiewicz, for example, was reelected with close to 85 percent of the vote.

The Kaczynski brothers and their Law and Justice Party have poor prospects at the polls in most of Poland's major cities. The twins derive much of their support from voters in rural districts. The majority of residents in Poznan, Krakow or Katowice want to enjoy their newfound prosperity and are irritated by the permanent state of national tension into which the Kaczynskis have plunged their country. For urban voters, the twins' hostility toward the EU and their calculated insults against Germany are nothing short of primitive, and they have little patience for the Kaczynskis' propensity to constantly invoke the past.

The future is what drives Poland's cities. Professor Renata Glosnicka, 71, heads a startup company in the growing biotech industry, a role her appearance seems to belie. After retiring, Glosnicka, a physician by trade, decided to begin a new career. Her company, Immunolab, produces vaccines for chickens and already controls half of the Polish market -- only two years after it was founded.

Glosnicka talks enthusiastically about the different varieties of salmonella that her company's drugs are designed to wipe out. "Vaccinating the animals keeps people healthy," she says. She invented the vaccine while working as a researcher at the University of Gdansk and patented the formula in 1991.

Immunolab is based in the newly created Pomeranian Science and Technology Park in nearby Gdynia. The cities of Gdansk, Sopot and Gdynia have grown together and cooperate economically, and are now referred to as the Tricity. The research park, a former streetcar depot, was modernized with EU funds. The wood-and-glass complex, designed in the Scandinavian style, already houses more than 60 small businesses, including computer firms, high-tech laboratories and companies specializing in communications.

Part 2: Safe for Business in the Kaczynski's Poland

Maciej Grabski, 38, can already look back on the kind of career to which many of the young employees at the new research park aspire today. Now a multi-millionaire, Grabski purchased a house in Wresc, a Gdansk neighborhood of expensive villas. He plans to restore the house, which is close to 100 years old, and he has no problem with the German sign on the mail slot, "Briefe und Zeitungen" ("Letters and Newspapers"). The interior renovation is already well underway. The walls on the ground floor are painted a pale yellow, and Grabski's study is furnished sparsely but with quality pieces. He serves green tea and organic cookies in the sitting area.

Grabski founded and developed the Internet portal Wirtualna Polska in the late 1990s. Within three years the company had grown from five to 350 employees. Grabski sold it to France Télécom in 2001 for €200 million. Now he backs investment funds; business is going well. "For the last two years, one has been able to feel safe again as a businessman in Poland," he says.

He credits the Kaczynskis with having helped change the business climate. "In the past, you had to deal with competitors taking advantage of their contacts to powerful people in Warsaw," he says. "I experienced the semi-corrupt relationships between politics and business myself. All that is gone now." It's all thanks to the twins, who have put an end to politicians' illicit ties to business.

Grabski also hopes that the brothers' social promises remain little more than campaign slogans. "We need a flat tax, a uniform tax rate for everyone," says Grabski. A similar tax already exists in Slovakia and Estonia.

Brunon Baranowski works only a few kilometers from Grabski's villa, but their worlds couldn't be farther apart. Baranowski's job at Gdansk's dockyard, famous for being the cradle of the Solidarity movement in the 1980s, is in jeopardy once again. He has already faced similar situations many times in the past.

Baranowski, a master welder, has a round, healthy-looking face. He has a way of speaking at the top of his voice, even when it happens to be uncharacteristically quiet in his small office in building PK2. "I was there for every strike," he recalls. "This is where the end of communism began."

There were once 17,000 workers at Baranowski's shipyard. Today it only employs 3,000. Most of the workers who participated in the 1980 strikes that forced the government to allow the establishment of the Solidarity union are now unemployed, the casualties of multiple layoffs over the years. Men like Baranowski see themselves as victims of Brussels bureaucrats, and they are convinced that Brussels has gradually and quietly taken over the Polish state.

But Baranowski's current worries are more mundane: pigeons defecating on his freshly welded ship parts. "We would have poisoned them in the past, but it's forbidden today. A couple of European environmentalists came up with that great idea," he says heatedly.

The government in Warsaw is currently quarreling with the EU over government subsidies for the shipbuilding plant. If the Kaczynskis lose the battle there could be trouble ahead for the shipyard where the union leader and later President Lech Walesa once worked. "Our plant is a monument, a symbol of freedom. It must be preserved," says Baranowski.

"There are too many monuments in this country," grumbles a young man in Café Ferber on Langgasse, the main tourist drag in downtown Gdansk.

More and more young, successful city dwellers agree. Jadwiga Charzynska, who runs the Laznia Centre for Contemporary Art, is one of them. "Modern art in our country no longer has any traditional elements," she says. The heroic suffering of the Polish people, its sacrifices during the partitions in the 18th and 19th century, as well as in World War II, are a thing of the past. "The cult of Polish martyrdom is no longer an issue," says Charzynska.

The Szydlowski family, the owners of Café Ferber, have no trouble relating to the past. A portrait of Maurycy Ferber, the scion of a Gdansk merchant dynasty that dominated the city in the late Middle Ages, hangs on the wall in the otherwise modern room.

Pawel Szydlowski, 28, wearing a dark suit, is the café's manager. He brought home the idea for Café Ferber from London where, like many enterprising Poles, he worked in several jobs for three years, one of them in a sushi bar.

The guests -- increasingly Poles and no longer as many tourists -- come to Café Ferber for its wireless Internet access and its Italian cuisine. "Until recently the Poles spent their free time at home. Now they want to dress up, go out and do all the things they've missed out on."

Nevertheless, Pavel Szydlowski still worries, saying that launching a café is almost as cumbersome and bureaucratic today as it was during the socialist era. "You have to contact more than 40 government offices. It takes months. In England you can do the same thing in an hour and a half."

He has another pet peeve: Poland's relationship with the Germans. Although tensions between Warsaw and Berlin over the last two years haven't deterred the tourists, "they can only hurt us in the long run," he says.

A man with similar concerns about good neighborly relations lives in an apartment in Oliva, a Gdansk neighborhood. Antique caricatures hang on the walls while books are stacked high to the ceiling. Only the laptop on his desk reveals that writer Pavel Huelle has joined the modern age. Huelle says that German writer Günter Grass, a Gdansk native, opened the "door to the city's unknown history" for him.

Like the man he reveres, Huelle also writes books about the Danzig of days gone by, the days when Jews, Germans, Poles and Kashubs lived there in close quarters. His works, like "Davidek the Wise," are bestsellers in Poland. "There is a special spirit in Gdansk," says Huelle. "We are used to being different. That's why the Kaczynskis are having such a hard time here."

Huelle was one of the first to stand behind Mayor Adamowicz when he refused to deny Grass, a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, honorary citizenship of Gdansk, which politicians in the Kaczynskis' party had demanded after the writer admitted to having been a member of Hitler's Waffen-SS. In a popular referendum, 72 percent of Gdansk residents voted against the Law and Justice Party's demands.

Another honorary citizen of Gdansk, Solidarity founder and Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa -- himself not exactly a supporter of the conservative nationalist twins -- also reacted sharply to the Grass revelations. Walesa, insisting that he could not share such an honor with a former member of the SS, even threatened to return his honorary citizenship if the city went ahead with its plans to pay tribute to Grass.

But the former labor leader relented in time for the German author's 80th birthday, which the city celebrated in high style two weeks ago. During a panel discussion with Grass, Walesa said: "I initially reacted like someone who lost his father in the war. But then my faith in reconciliation prevailed."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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