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Poland: Struggles and triumphs

Whenever one hears of Poland, what is the first thing that comes to the mind? Nicholas Copernicus, Auschwitz, Warsaw Pact, Pope John Paul the II (Wojtyla), Lech Walesa, Kojak, or the jaw-breaking Slavonic names of people and places like Zbigniew Brzezinski, Swinoujscie, or Szczencin. Poland and the Poles are actually a combination of all these and many other features and dimensions. While scientists like Copernicus and Marie Curie have expanded the dimension of human knowledge, events of the Auschwitz would continue to draw sympathy and remain a constant reminder of human follies, and yet, the memories of Nobel Laureate Lech Walesa with his leadership role of the Solidarity Movement and Wojtyla for his humility and humane cause would continue to manifestly influence the thoughts and events in Europe and elsewhere in the contemporary world. Indeed, over the course of human history, Warsaw had set the trend, be it through the Warsaw Confederation of 1573 codifying religious tolerance and protection of religious and political minorities, as well as ensuring freedom to practice their own faith, or through the Warsaw Convention of 1929 setting out the protocol for International Air Carriage and delineating responsibilities, claims, and liabilities thereof, or through the launching of the Warsaw Pact of 1955 grouping the Soviet Bloc countries during the cold war.

Poland is an ancient country which was conceived in the 10th century. Its political system attained a refined shape in the 16th century which can rightly be called its Golden Age. Under this system, Poland was formed into a Commonwealth of Two Nations — Poles and Lithuanians. This Commonwealth was to be ruled by an elected King. The Monarch, so chosen by the gentry, did not enjoy absolute power, rather had to share it with the gentry. In the 18th century, Poland emerged as the largest State in Europe. The Polish socio-political system became a unique one in a Europe that was ruled and dominated by absolute Monarchs. But this structured political system proved to be its greatest weakness as well. By and time, the gentry became more power-hungry and grew more ambitious with larger ownership of land and possession of private armies. Disorder soon ensued as an inevitable consequence and the existing political structure could neither rein in nor control the instability.

Poland soon had to fall prey to the other powerful nations. Through a series of agreements in the year 1772, the country was divided among Russia, Prussia, and Austria, and Poland lost one third of its territory. Much of this ordeal is attributed to the last King Stanislaw Augustus Poniatowski who was installed by Russia and was thought to have enjoyed a special “relationship” with and in favour of the legendary Russian Empress Catherine the Great.

But all was not lost. Something extraordinary had happened even in those days of difficulty. On May 3, 1791, the Polish Sejm (Parliament) adopted a constitution for Poland. This constitution was the first in Europe and second in the world, coming into being only after four years of the historic Constitution of the United States of America. No wonder, the Poles are proud of this epoch-making event and ever proudly observe this as The Constitution Day.

But the political reforms brought about by the constitution went against the vested interest of the gentry and, at their behest, Russia and Prussia invaded Poland, and the country was partitioned for the second time. Subsequently, the ordinary Poles remonstrated against such a position and reacted with force that resulted in a failed uprising in the year 1795. In the same very year, Poland was partitioned for the third time and the country disappeared from the Map of the World for the next 123 years, only to re-emerge as a free country on November 11, 1918 when the occupation power collapsed as a consequence of the First World War. But this period was to be a brief one too as within only three decades, Poland was over-run by the Germans and Russians during the Second World War.

After the end of the Second World War, Poland belonged to the Soviet Bloc and even the name of its capital was synonymous of the Pact and served as the focal point of many activities during the Cold War, although domestically the government and the political system was more progressive and tolerant than many other countries in the Bloc.

In the later part of the 20th century, Poland came to limelight once again. Labour movement under the banner of the independent trade union Solidarity emerged to represent and speak for the political freedom of the Poles. The Solidarity under its charismatic leader Lech Walesa swept the national elections in 1990 and Walesa became the president of the republic. Bold economic reforms undertaken by the new government turned Poland into one of the robust countries in Central Europe. But such successes were short-lived as high unemployment, undeveloped infrastructure, and apparent inherent weakness of an inherited socialist economy could not keep pace with time. The Poles opted for change once again. In the national elections of 2001, the Solidarity of Nobel Laureate Lech Walesa failed to win even a single seat in the Sejm.

Situated in the centre of the Central Europe (Poles resent to be nicknamed as East Europeans), Poland shares its borders with as many as seven countries, namely, Belarus, Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, Russia (Kaliningrad Oblast), Slovakia, and Ukraine. Thus, the modern Poland has also maintained its central role as a strategically important country in the region. Once the heart of the Warsaw Pact, Poland joined the NATO in 1999 and became a member of the European Union in 2004. With the transformation into a fully democratic country and a market-oriented economy, modern Poland is seen to be playing an increasingly audible, visible, active, and responsible role in different Euro-Atlantic organisations. To cap it all, His Excellency Donald Tusk, who served as the prime minister of Poland from 2007 to 2014, has been unanimously elected as the president of the European Council in December 2014.

Today’s Poland is busy and basking in the glory of its new found place in Europe and in the world. Poles love to host guests. There’s a Polish saying: “Gosc w dom, Bog w dom” meaning “Guest in the home, God in the home.” No wonder, Poland has been hosting many a world class conferences and conventions on a myriad range of interests including mining, climate change, environment, world trade, defence and, not to forget, the Euro-Cup 2012.

Modern Poland is also open, progressive, and cosmopolitan. It might appear to be news to many of us. One renowned Bangladeshi physician who is also a valiant freedom fighter of our War of Liberation Hubert Ranjan Costa was elected as a Deputy in the Polish Sejm (Parliament) from Wroclaw in 2005 and served until 2007.

First contact between Poland and the Indian subcontinent was probably established in the 18th century when Polish missionaries landed on the beaches of Goa. During the Second World War, some Polish exiles migrated from Iran to India and settled in Maharastra. After the war and after the independence, Poland and India have maintained a steady relationship over the years, a relationship which is now witnessing Indian investment in Poland and joint-venture projects in India under the auspices of Indo-Polish Joint Commission for Economic Co-operation.

Large number of Polish servicemen became surplus in the aftermath of the Second World War and many of whom joined the then Pakistan Air Force, the flying arm of the newly independent country and start the flying activities. As a matter of propinquity, let me cite the name of one such Polish gentleman, W J M Turowich, who rose to the rank of an air commodore in the Pakistan Air Force, held various important positions including the head of SUPARCO (Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission) of Pakistan in its nascent stage. Air Commodore Turowich served with the Royal Air Force in India during the Second World War and after the war he was among those Polish pilots who opted for Pakistani nationality. He retired in 1970 (I was a cadet at the Pakistan Air Force College of Aeronautical Engineering then).

The government and the people of Poland rendered their whole-hearted support to Bangladesh during the War of Liberation. Poland was one of the first European countries to accord diplomatic recognition to the newly born country and came forward with open arms for the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the war ravaged economy of Bangladesh. Both countries also opened diplomatic missions in Dhaka and Warsaw and signed protocols for cooperation in different areas. In 2007, the government of Poland made a handsome donation to the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society for building low cost houses for the SIDR victims.

With an area of 312,685sqkm and a population of 38 million, Poland commands a GDP of $814bn, enjoying a growth rate of 1.3%. Compared to some of its European partners, the Polish economy has performed fairly well and is reaping the benefit of liberalisation. With joining of the EU and access to funding, the economy has boosted further and now stands as the 22nd in world ranking.

Poland is endowed with rich mineral resources, main among which are coal, natural gas, sulfur etc. It also has a long legacy of ship building, mining, and manufacturing of heavy machineries. The flat plains of Poland are somewhat akin to the topography of Bangladesh; with its rich flora and fauna, laudable success in agriculture, cattle breeding, and dairy production, together with its achievement in modern and scientific farming and processing of fruits and vegetables are a role model for many developing countries. Like Bangladesh, Poland is also prone to natural hazards like flooding and there are lessons to be shared from such common experiences. Since coal and gas exploration are a major economic concerns for Bangladesh and ship building is emerging as a thrust sector, Bangladesh and Poland can cooperate in these fields to mutual benefit. Poland is one of the major destinations within the European Union for Bangladeshi products like RMG, Textiles, handicrafts, tea, and leather goods and the annual volume is close to $750mn against an import of $30mn, putting Bangladesh in a clearly favourable position. Increased volume of import of fresh fruits, dairy products, processed food, and food processing machineries may bring about some balance in these figures in the near future.

Modern Poland has adopted May 3 as the National Day, and this year, the Republic of Poland should have observed its 224th Constitution Day on May 3 as the National Day also . However, like the Polish nation itself, the Constitution Day had to face its ups and downs through denials, delisting, restrictions, and banning under various regimes and at different times of its history. Now, May 3 is observed with much fanfare and festivities, through holding of military parades and by organizing solemn services at the tomb of the unknown soldiers. Although, over the years, the day has had suffered much denials and indignation at home, the largest civilian parade is being held in the city of Chicago as an annual event. Chicagon which is the second largest home of the Polonia community outside Polandn is planning to hold its 124th annual Polish constitutional parade this year where a crowd of some 40,000 to 160,000 is expected to turn up. Small scale parades are also being held as an annual event by the Polish diaspora in San Francisco, Minnesota, and elsewhere.

As the people of Poland celebrate their Constitution Day and the National Day, let us wish them well and let us hope that a new chapter opens up in the Poland-Bangladesh relationship in the very near future.

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