Political Rights: 1
Civil Liberties: 2
Status: Free
Population: 38,600,000
GNI/Capita: $4,230
Life Expectancy: 74
Religious Groups: : Roman Catholic (89.8 percent) Eastern Orthodox (1.3 percent), Protestant (0.3 percent), other (8.6 percent) [including Byelorussian and Ukrainian] (2.9 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Polish (98 percent), German (1 percent), other [including Ukrainian and Byelorussian] (1 percent)
Capital: Warsaw


Poland, which joined NATO in 1999, moved closer in 2003 to achieving the second of its key strategic objectives, membership in the European Union (EU). In a referendum held in June, the country voted overwhelmingly in favor of joining the EU, with 77 percent in support of membership.

From the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries, Poland and Lithuania maintained a powerful state that Prussia, Austria, and Russia destroyed in three successive partitions. Poland enjoyed a window of independence from 1918 to 1939, but was forced into the Communist sphere at the end of World War II. Polish citizens endured decades of Soviet rule until 1989, the year Lech Walesa and the Solidarity trade union movement forced the government to accept democratic reforms.

Fundamental democratic and free-market oriented reforms were introduced during the 1989-1991 period. Later changes were stimulated by a need to adjust the Polish legal system to EU requirements. Political parties with a background in the Solidarity Movement stayed in power from 1989 to 1993 (several coalitions) and from 1997 to 2001 (Solidarity Election Action or AWS). In 1995, former Communist Alexander Kwasniewski replaced the previous president, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. Kwasniewski began his reelection campaign in 2000 with a strong lead in the polls. He defeated 11 opponents in the first round of voting with 53.9 percent of the vote.

In September 2001, voters handed the government of Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek a decisive defeat in parliamentary elections. Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) leader Leszek Miller became the new prime minister. In the election to the Sejm (lower house of parliament), a coalition of the center-left SLD and the Labor Union (UP) took 41.04 percent of the vote and 216 seats, but failed to win an outright majority. The two parties formed a government with the leftist Polish Peasants' Party (PSL), which had won 42 seats. Civic Platform (PO), a new centrist party, finished second in the election with 12.68 percent of the vote and 65 seats. The following parties divided the remaining seats: the Leftist-popular agrarian Self Defense Party (Samoobrona), 53 seats; the center-right Law and Justice (PiS), 44; the right-wing League of Polish Families (LPR), 38; and the German minority, 2. The AWS and the Freedom Union (UW) failed to secure a single seat. In the Senate election, the SLD-UP won 75 seats; the bloc Senate 2001, 15; the PSL, 4; the LPR, 2; and Samoobrona, 2. Voter turnout was 46 percent.

In a June 2003 referendum, Polish voters overwhelmingly approved joining the EU, with 77 percent voting in support of membership. Turnout for the national referendum was 59 percent of eligible citizens, surpassing the 50 percent needed to make the vote binding. In November, the European Commission in its annual progress report on future members and candidates identified nine areas of "serious concern" with respect to Poland's preparation for joining the EU. The commission urged that Poland accelerate the harmonization of its laws and regulations with those of the EU in areas ranging from anticorruption efforts to food safety.

Over the past several years, Poland has sought to carve out a twenty-first century leadership role for itself in Europe. Such aspirations have manifested themselves both in the political and security spheres. Polish leadership has been in evidence, for example, in its efforts to shape the EU's future constitution and in maintaining engagement with the poorly performing lands on Poland's – and the future EU's – eastern frontier.

Poland's advocacy on behalf of Europe's developing an interventionist approach to the Iraq crisis and its prominent role in the stabilization of that country following the ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime are among the boldest, and most contentious, Polish initiatives. In charge of one of the four postwar stabilization zones in Iraq, Polish officers command 9,000 troops from some 20 countries. In total, the Polish armed forces placed 2,300 troops on the ground in Iraq. Poland's role in Iraq has generated consternation in a number of capitals in Western Europe that had opposed any military action in Iraq from the outset. Along with other countries that have made NATO and EU membership strategic objectives and that are eager to have solid relations both with the United States and the EU, Poland has confronted the pressures of dealing with the competing and often divergent interests within the transatlantic community.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Polish citizens can change their government democratically. Voters elect the president and members of parliament. The president's appointment of the prime minister is subject to confirmation by the Sejm (the lower house of parliament). Elections to the European Parliament are scheduled for June 2004. The next parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled for September and October 2005, respectively.

Over the course of 2003, the SLD-led government continued to confront allegations of party figures' links to organized crime and corruption. The "Rywin affair," which involves allegations that film producer Lew Rywin sought a bribe from a major newspaper publisher in return for using his political connections to influence the shape of the draft media law, remains a festering issue on the country's political scene.

The 1997 constitution guarantees freedom of expression and forbids censorship. However, the country's libel law treats slander as a criminal offense. Journalists, in particular, oppose the growing number of related lawsuits. In 2002, several actions by the Leszek Miller government raised concerns about its respect for media independence. Infringements on media freedoms include gag orders and arbitrary judicial decisions concerning investigations of individuals affiliated with parties in power.

The state respects freedom of religion and does not require religious groups to register. Registered religious groups enjoy a reduced tax burden. In 2003, the Roman Catholic Church for the first time met with serious accusations of sexual impropriety by clerics. The Church responded with investigations and dismissals, including that of a bishop.

Polish citizens can petition the government, assemble freely, organize professional and other associations, and engage in collective bargaining. Public demonstrations require permits from local authorities. Since the 1980s, when shipyard workers in Gdansk launched a national strike and formed the Solidarity labor union, Poland has had a robust labor movement. Although Solidarity's political strength has waned in recent years, labor groups remain active and influential.

Poland has an independent judiciary, but courts are notorious for delays in administering cases. In 1989, the country began a reform process that has sought to increase the efficiency, and professionalism of the judiciary. In its 2002 accession report, the European Commission acknowledged "steady progress" and "improved efficiency" in this process, but noted that Poland should continue efforts to increase public access to justice, address public perceptions of corruption within the judiciary, and improve the treatment of detainees by the police. State prosecutors have dragged their feet on investigations into graft and corruption, contributing to concerns that they are subject to considerable political pressure.

The constitution outlines a range of personal rights and freedoms, including the right to privacy, the inviolability of the home, freedom of movement, and choice of residence.

Ethnic minorities generally enjoy generous protections and rights provided under Polish law, including funding for bilingual education and publications and privileged representation in parliament. In 2003, there were efforts to close several Lithuanian-language schools because of shortages of funding. However, the decision was reversed, and the schools remain open.

Domestic violence against women is a problem in Poland. Women have made inroads in the professional sphere and are employed in a wide variety of professions and occupations. A number of women hold high positions in government and in the private sector.

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