Tragedy and chaos, both imposed from outside and self-inflicted, feature all too often in Poland’s history. They are exemplified by Saturday’s plane crash. President Lech Kaczynski’s apparently reckless insistence on landing on an unsuitable foggy airport cost the lives of some of Poland’s most distinguished military and academic figures. The echo of the original Katyn massacre, in which the Polish prewar elite — lawyers, doctors, teachers, public servants, all serving as reserve officers — perished at Russian hands is unbearably poignant.
Yet the Poland that is now so convulsed in grief has another side to it. Never in its history has Poland been so prosperous or so secure. Last year its economy was the only one in all of Europe to show GDP growth, of 1.7 per cent. The country’s banking system is solid, its public finances sound. The currency, the zloty, is inconveniently strong. Clapped-out communist-era infrastructure is giving way to excellent modern roads, railways and public buildings. Its state education system puts Britain’s to shame.
Poland matters. Its 38 million population is bigger than the combined total of the other former communist countries (Hungary, Slovakia etc) that joined the European Union in 2004. In America’s eyes, Poland’s military matters more than that of any other country in continental Europe. Unlike the toy soldiers employed by many other so-called Nato allies, Poland’s soldiers turn up, fight and die in missions overseas. In return, America insists that Nato makes real plans to defend Poland if necessary.
The country has lately gained a new role as a diplomatic heavyweight in Europe. The late President had many virtues, including an acute sense of history and scrupulous integrity.
But they were all too often overshadowed by his failings: obstinacy, pettiness and a sometimes startling lack of perspective. In the 2005-2007 period when Law and Justice, the main opposition party led by the President’s twin brother Jaroslaw, was in office, ill-chosen tactics, amateurishness and startlingly bad public relations risked making Poland a laughing stock.
Since then, Poland’s wily, soft-spoken Prime Minister Donald Tusk, and his heavyweight Oxford-educated Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski have brought about a diplomatic renaissance. Poland has defused tension with Germany, revived the Visegrad grouping of Central European former communist states, built a strong friendship with Sweden and managed a remarkable breakthrough with Russia, epitomised by Vladimir Putin’s attendance at a ceremony in Katyn on April 7, just three days before Mr Kaczynski’s own ill-starred visit there. Politics at home looks good too: whereas many other former communist countries flounder under weak minority governments, Mr Tusk’s coalition administration is smooth, effective — and popular.
The socially conservative, prickly, ethics-conscious and patriotic constituency that voted for Mr Kaczynski will not go away. But the politicians that represent it look increasingly outmanoeuvred. Mr Kaczynski was already facing an all but insuperable challenge from Mr Tusk’s Civic Platform party in the presidential elections in October. Now Law and Justice will struggle to find a strong candidate to run in his place. That will further streamline Polish politics by removing the embarrassing clashes with the presidency caused by constitutional confusion over who runs what in foreign policy.
The spotlight on Poland will burn increasingly brightly in the coming years. In 2011 Poland will hold the rotating six-month presidency of the EU, preceded by Hungary. The two countries are already planning hard to make that a success, and shift the centre of gravity in EU decision making away from the cosy West European cartel dominated by France and Germany. In 2012 Poland will host the European football championships jointly with Ukraine. Those old stereotypes about Polish backwardness, weakness, misery and failure have never looked more outdated.
Edward Lucas, central and Eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist.