Poland has been economically one of the most successful countries in Eastern Europe, but politically very volatile
Poland has swamps and sand dunes along its northern coast. But the main part of the country comprises the central plains and lowlands; ‘Poland’ derives from a Slavic word for ‘plain’. The mountainous one-third of the country includes the Carpathians along the southern border with Slovakia.
Poland's population has become ethnically more homogenous—largely as a result of the deaths and expulsions of Jews and other minorities during the Second World War. At the same time, many ethnic Poles have also emigrated, a trend which continued in the early 1990s as many people moved to Germany and elsewhere in search of work. Around one-third of ethnic Poles are thought to live abroad. An important unifying factor has been the Catholic Church, which played an important part in the struggle against communism—and also provided the previous Pope, Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II. However, the Church's political influence has diminished and it now restricts itself more to social teaching.
Poles have not just become wealthier, they have also become healthier. Since the early 1990s, life expectancy has been increasing and infant mortality falling. This was helped by better food and by cleaner air, though Poles still suffer from high levels of smoking and alcohol abuse. Education levels had also been high during the communist period, though low salaries have dissuaded potential teachers, particularly in the rural areas, and standards have fallen.
Poland is considered a successful example of economic ‘shock therapy’. From 1989, the government rapidly liberalized prices, imposed wage controls, and reduced subsidies to state-owned enterprises. This ushered in a deep recession with high unemployment, but by the mid-1990s Poland had embarked on rapid economic growth. Although the rate has slowed in recent years in 2010 it is expected to be 2%. Manufacturing led the way, fuelled by foreign investment. Some of the older industries have faded but there has been strong growth in lighter industry, notably food and drink and some heavier manufacturing such as automobiles. Between 1989 and 2006, the private sector's share of GDP rose from 18% to 88%. This has gradually reduced unemployment which in 2009 was below 10%.
Poland is one of the world's largest coal producers. But in recent years output has been falling while wage costs have risen and the industry is losing money.
Poland has two million small farms
Agriculture remains important. Although it accounts for only 4% of GDP, it employs 15% of the labour force. Polish farmers had managed to resist collectivization during the communist period. All the 1.8 million farms are privately owned but most are small—averaging only 8.6 hectares—and very labour intensive.
In May 2004 Poland joined the EU where it has established itself as a tough negotiator. Poland's farmers will benefit from the EU's common agricultural policy but will only gradually get the same level of subsidies as those in other states.
EU membership has also enabled many people to find work in other countries. In 2007 there were thought to be 2.3 million Poles working temporarily abroad.