The Evolution of Poland’s Economic System

A 75-YEAR Review (1944-2019)


In 2019 Poland celebrated the 30th anniversary of political and economic transition. Although, 1989 was a year of unprecedented changes, the transformation of the economic system, which includes the development of different institutions, did not happen at once. Instead, it was a long-term process initiated at the beginning of communism in 1944. This paper is an attempt to analyze the development of Polish economic system since the early days of centrally-planned economy until 2019. A special focus is given to the key policies introduced by each government which were determining the institutional arrangements in different periods. The analysis includes also the effects of those changes on the country’s economic performance and well-being of the society. As the information presented in this paper comes from a variety of sources, it includes opinions on those effects presented by different economists which are not always coincident. In such cases both views are being discussed. The last part summarizes the characteristics of main institutions shaping Polish economy in three different periods of time.

Chapter 1

Institutional and economic development of Poland before 1989

Since ages Poland has been lagging behind western Europe in terms of economic development. The reason of that was the establishment of extractive institutions in the middle ages which continued to exist until the 1989 transition. The first significant modification started to take place after the Second World War. The communist government, despite being oppressive and Soviet-dependent, implemented groundbreaking changes and managed to transform its own institutions that put the foundations for a liberal economy and free, egalitarian society.

1.1 A short historical perspective of pre-war Poland

Pre-war Poland was characterized by extractive political and social institutions created by the nobility in the end of the XV century when the so-called “Golden Age” of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth began. In the largest European country at that time, elites monopolized power enslaving the peasants (80% of the population) and preventing the city bourgeoisie from growing by restricting trade only to foreigners. Agriculture was the dominant sector in the economy, bringing huge profits to the nobility. However, the aristocracy was not interested in developing other sectors and focused only on noncommercial activities, especially those connected with patriotism and wars. Public administration almost did not exist and the state had only symbolic tax revenues (Korys, 2018). Thus, despite many spectacular military successes, the country collapsed at the end of the XVIII century. After regaining independence in 1918 the new Second Polish Republic was reestablished with similar social structures as before. Poland continued to lag behind Western Europe in terms of development.

1.2 Economic, social and political changes in post Second World War Poland

Communism was a period of unprecedent changes in Poland. The core of the system became a centrally planned economy which combined public ownership with state coordination through directives. Party officials were supervising managers who commanded control over workers. The system was designed to hold real wages under control and to restrict price increases (Poznanski, 1996). At the same time, after the devastating Second World War, the new Soviet-dependent government announced the rebuild of the country starting the biggest industrialization in Polish history and moving significant amounts of labor from agriculture to the secondary sector. The structural change in the economy was also influenced by the move of the borders around 350 km from the East to the West. Although this move resulted in a 80.000 square kilometers decrease in total area, the new territories taken from Germany were significantly richer and better developed (their pre-war GDP was double of that of Poland) (Piątkowski, 2018: 91). However, the most significant change for the future development of the country happened in its institutions. Communism replaced pre-war elites, that had been managing extractive institutions for centuries, with a new classless society (Piątkowski, 2018). In 1944 a new agrarian reform was introduced, confiscating all landholdings of more than 50 ha and distributing them among peasants. In a short period of time old elites ceased to exist. Moreover, free, public and compulsory primary education was introduced. In the 1960s over 20% of pupils attended secondary education (compared to less than 1% in 1938) (Piątkowski, 2018: 101). Communists created also a kindergarten system covering 90% of kids aged 3-5, allowing women for a labor participation significantly higher than in most Western European countries. Additionally, access to free tertiary education was largely promoted, creating a new educated elite coming from plebeian background. Polish universities were famous in the soviet block from their high quality of teaching and intellectual freedom which became the reason of the emergence of independent elites in the later period of communism. In consequence, the society experimented fundamental changes in the social structure. For the first time in Poland’s history the vast majority of citizens could benefit from the economic opportunities.

1.3 The performance and evolution of communist economy in Poland

During the 1950s the economic performance of communist Poland was similar to capitalist European states. Fast industrialization was the main driver of economic growth. To support it, vocational training in the companies was largely created and graduates from technological universities were highly appreciated in the labor market. Poland was also the only country in the soviet bloc that avoided farm collectivization. However, the agricultural sector was still underperforming. The growth began to slow down in the 1960s showing the failures of the centrally planned communist system. The raise of food prices in 1970 caused wide protests of workers, bloodily suppressed by Gomulka’s administration. In consequence, he was replaced by Edward Gierek in the position of the First Secretary.

Under Gierek’s regime, the communist economic structure was widely transformed. Control over resources was switched from the central party supervision to ministries and industrial associations. A new concept of development was created linking domestic production with the consumption of goods rather than focusing on the heavy industry. Using a large amount of foreign credits that helped to upgrade the technology, Polish economy in 1971-75 made a great progress modernizing faster than any other Eastern European country (Poznański, 1996). The increase in real wages was higher than in productivity and the life conditions of the society improved significantly. The costs of this were being paid by constant budget deficits and hidden inflation. When in 1976 the authorities decided to finally rise prices, big protests forced them to withdrew from this idea (Morawski, 2018). At that time the real force of the labor started to become visible. The communist regime could not any more exercise the power independently. Instead, it had to share it with the workers. With the worsening economic conditions of the country fueled by global oil shocks that undermined competitiveness, export revenues were not sufficient to pay back foreign debts. The massive labor strikes of 1979-81, unknow in any other Eastern European country, immobilized the export capacity and put the economy into the deepest crisis since 1945.

The period of 1980-89, called also “the lost decade” was characterized by unprecedent institutional changes. In August 1980 the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union “NSZZ Solidarność” was established. Shortly after that, the new government of general Jaruzelski gave the authority over enterprises to workers collectives. This created a labor-managed-system under which maximization of wages gained priority over profits and expansion of capital stock (Poznański, 1996). The government also passed regulations allowing the creation of private businesses and creating the largest private sector in Eastern Europe. With pro-marked reforms, the communists wanted to move from a planned market-type socialism to a market system where central planning was to be used only in determining long term goals. The martial law introduced in December 1981 allowed Jaruzelski’s administration to significantly raise prices, however, Western sanctions in response to the introduced state-of-war aggravated economic problems (Morawski, 2018). In the last years of communism, the authorities continued to build market institutions. In 1986 Poland joined the World Bank and the IMF and introduced an anti-monopoly law. During 1987-1989 the monetary policy was reformed, giving independence to the central bank that was separated from its regional branches (those became commercial banks). In 1989, the last communist government of Mieczysław Rakowski freed half of the prices and passed the famous law “ustawa Wilczka”. This short act composed of only 55 articles until today has been being praised for its simplicity and liberty that gave to the entrepreneurs. Finally, in early 1989 the foreign exchange market was partly liberalized and the economy was opened to inflows
of FDI.

Chapter 2

From 1989 transition to the UE membership

The institutions that formed the political and economic system of People’s Republic of Poland were constantly evolving through 45 years of communism from centrally-planned towards marked oriented. However, the speed of changes increased dramatically after the first free elections. The new „Solidarity” government, formed by an alliance of trade union members and reformist intelligence, began the “shock therapy”, a reflection of the “Washington Consensus”, followed by an intensive institution-building process which culminated with the accession to the European Union.

2.1 The “shock therapy”

The first democratic government established in September 1989 with Tadeusz Mazowiecki as Prime Minister had to face a task that no country made before: a full transition from communist to freemarket economy. The Minister of Finance Leszek Balcerowicz with the help of the American economist Jefferey Sachs established a plan to restore macroeconomic stability challenged by hyperinflation and to “catch up with the West” in the long term (Balcerowicz, 2014: 23). The “Balcerowicz Plan” was based mainly on the ideas from the neo-liberal Washington Consensus. The plan focused on tightening fiscal and monetary policies, creating a market economy and opening to trade and competition. Under those policies most prices were liberalized to eliminate shortages and misallocation, złoty (national currency) was devaluated and fixed to the dollar and custom-tariffs replaced foreign trade monopolies. Central bank financing of budget was banned. Subsidies to enterprises and farm producers were eliminated and corporate tax was extended to all state-owned companies. Privatization of small firms was initiated and an anti-monopoly agency was set up. Indexation of wages was revoked and a tax on excessive wage growth introduced. Finally the “Balcerowicz plan” included at a later stage the introduction of a stock exchange and privatization of large SOEs (Jackson, 2005; Morawski, 2018; Piątkowski, 2018). As the reforms were implemented at an unprecedent speed, they began to be called “shock-therapy”. Balcerowicz believed that because of the initial fatal macroeconomic conditions such fast approach was needed, without prior focus on building institutions or securing the short-term wellbeing of the society (Balcerowicz, 2014). The plan came in force on January 1st 1990. The macroeconomic goals were achieved, however with many negative consequences. The post-transition recession was deepened with a 18% decline of GDP during 1990-91 (Piątkowski, 2018). Unemployment grew from 0% to 16% in 1993 and real wages decreased by over one quarter (Jackson, 2005). Domestic market was left unprotected and many companies did not withstand the competition from Western multinationals. In 1992 the economic activity revived and the GDP started to grow again. In this success the new domestically owned private companies, which became the main driver of national growth, played largely more significant role than already existing privatized enterprises (Jackson, 2005: 28). Finally, during 1991-94 most countries agreed to cut by half Polish foreign debt inherited from the communist times in turn for introducing IMF backed reforms.

2.2 The “Strategy for Poland” and privatization of large SOEs

The social impact of radical economic policies led to a change of government in 1994 elections. The new centrist-left government with Grzegorz Kołodko as Minister of Finance developed a plan called “Strategy for Poland”. Its main objective was the reduction of social costs of the transformation and further institution-building to prepare the country for EU accession. The period 1994-97 was characterized by the fastest growth of GDP in the whole post-transformation period, exceeding 6% a year. Both Piątkowski (2018) and Jackson (2006) argue that the main driver of the growth was the ability to generate new enterprises, a process called creative destruction by Schumpeter. At the same time unemployment fell by one third and inflation by two thirds. Domestic savings have been increased and export widely promoted. Those policies were going to set the foundations for a long term development. In 1996 Poland joined the OECD. One year later it approved the new constitution with an important 60% of GDP limit of public debt. An significant labor reform was conducted too, which aimed to decentralize the wage bargain system and put the government in a role of negotiator between the employees and employers (Kołodko, 1994).

One of the most controversial topic in Poland’s transformation is the privatization of large SOEs that started in 1996. Among economists who claim it as successful is Leszek Balcerowicz. He argues that a faster privatization could have brought even better results for the economy (Balcerowicz, 2014). An opposite opinion gives Justin Yifu Lin (2011) explaining that gradual privatization in Poland allowed to avoid a major collapse in industry an achieve an outstanding performance comparing to other CEE countries. Piątkowski (2018), who also positively assesses the delay in privatization, argues that it gave time for strengthening corporate governance and monitoring of the management funds, which in collaboration with western companies, were responsible for conducting the process. Moreover, the delay gave time to improve Poland’s rule of law and create a well-functioning capital market. In effect, Polish privatization did not produce oligarchs as in Russia and helped sell the enterprises at prices closer to market values. Finally, IPOs helped Warsaw Stock Exchange to become the largest stock market in the region. Other economists, however, are more skeptical. Ryszard Bugaj argues that the potential of Polish industry has been annihilated in two steps. Firstly, by excessive interest rates which made the companies unable to pay off their credits and then by selling the best performing SOEs to foreign investors who transformed them into their peripheral subsidiaries (Zagóra-Jonszta, 2017). Finally, Kazimierz Poznański, one of the biggest critics of Polish transformation in the cademic world, condemns the sale of Poland’s national assets to foreign capitalists. According to his calculations, the revenue from privatization reflected only 8-12% of the real value of the sold enterprises (Poznański, 2011). In consequence, the massive sales of Polish factories and banks did not only bring small revenues, but also deprived the state budget from future income.

2.3 Economic slowdown an accession to the EU

There is no consensus regarding the rationality of Balcerowicz’s policies who became again minister of finance (1997-2000) and then president of the National Bank of Poland (2001-2007). His restrictive monetary policies with the objective to calm down the “overheated” economy inherited by Kołodko decreased economic growth almost leading the country into recession in 2001 and doubling unemployment to nearly 20%. Both Piątkowski (2018) and Kołodko (2014) condemns this neoliberal policy as completely unnecessary, however Morawski (2018) claims that it helped Poland avoid the negative impact of Russian and Asian crises. Similarly, Kołodko (2014) and many others disagree with Balcerowicz’s fully optimistic assessment of shock therapy calling it “shock without therapy” as a way to reflect the dramatic social costs of the transition.

The 2001-04 left-wing government partially restored economic growth and focused on reforming institutions, an indispensable process to access the EU. Numerous changes were introduced to the legal system with the aim to adjust Polish law to the EU requirements. The accession was a long awaited day for Poles. In a referendum organized in 2003 75% of citizens voted in favor of joining the European community.

Chapter 3:

Poland’s development of the last 15 years: neoliberalism versus state-led capitalism

Membership in the EU was only the beginning of the long process of catching-up with the Western economies. The following 15 years were characterized by continuous economic growth in two different models: first “neoliberal” and then “state capitalism”. The second one included reorientation of policies that aimed to challenge the limitations of being a “dependent market economy” (Jasiecki, 2018). 30 years after the beginning of transition, Poland’s economy is characterized by a large share of exports value in total GDP reaching almost 50%, which is more than in Germany. Despite this strong dependency on export, its structure is very diversified. Thus, the economy proved not to be strongly susceptible to external shocks as the 2008 crisis, 2014 Russian embargo and the slowing down of German economy in 2019. Economists claim that this is also a contribution to a relatively large domestic market comparing to other CEE countries (Piątkowski, 2015).

3.1 The first government of “Law and Justice”

Shortly after the EU accession, new elections were held. In 2005 the government of post-Solidarity “Law and Justice” headed by Prime Minister Marcinkiewicz secured a huge sum of 63bln euro from the EU budget for the years 2007-13 (Morawski, 2018: 29). With the European borders opened, a mass migration of Polish workers to Western states began, mainly to UK, Ireland, Germany and the Netherlands. In less than 10 years more than 2 million people (5% of total population) emigrated in search for better perspectives (Bobrowska, 2013). The short period between EU accession and the global financial crisis was also characterized by important changes in internal policy. The Law and Justice government, with Zyta Gilowska as minister of finance and key figure at that time, introduced unprecedent tax cuts. Those included a significant reduction of the corporate tax as well as cuts of pension contributions and social security contributions payed by the employees. They were followed by decreases of VAT in the construction sector and taxes on biofuels. Some taxes were completely abolished, as the inheritance tax for close family members and the 10% duty on cosmetics. The government introduced also some smaller social benefits – an allowance on child birth and a child bonus of 1200zł (around 300 euro) a year. What may be even more important, the minister of finance pursued a very stable monetary and fiscal policy, cutting the budget deficit by half, which had a crucial impact on the performance of the economy during the 2008 crisis. It is important to notice that in 2006 and 2007 Poland again experienced a very high economic growth of 6,2% and 7% respectively.

3.2 Eight years of “Civic Platform” rules – the return of neo-liberalism

Due to disagreements in the government coalition, in 2007 a new elections were called in which the Civic Platform of Donald Tusk, an economically liberal post-Solidarity party, gained power. The new government had to deal very fast with the challenge of the global financial crisis. As resulted later, Poland was the only EU country that avoided recession, although the growth decreased to less than 2% in 2009. The main reasons that contributed to the remarkably good performance included: very good fiscal condition inherited from Zyta Gilowska, adequate policies led by Minister of Finance Jacek Rostowski and NBP president Sławomir Skrzypek which ensured macroeconomic stability, weakening currency which boosted exports, large inflow of EU funds since 2007, a healthy banking sector that did not need to receive any financial support and the presence of domestic owned banks that provided credit when the dominating foreign-owned limited its lending. After surpassing the crisis the government created a propaganda myth of Poland as an European “green island’ of economic growth and emphasized it with stability and security. Deeper reforms were avoided and a neoliberal policy of a cheap state, which characterized the 8 years of Civic Platform rules, has been introduced (Morawski, 2018). The greatest success was the development of modern infrastructure, almost completely unpresented before, in a country of over 300 square kilometers in the middle of Europe. Long awaited highways and high speed railways finally appeared, which to a great degree was a contribution to inflowing EU funds. Attracting FDI became a high priority. Thus, policies aiming to improve the business environment were introduced. Over the period 2009-15 Poland moved from the 76th to the 24th place in the Doing Business ranking becoming the fastest reforming OECD economy (Piątkowski, 2018). In the same period, Warsaw Stock Exchange was quickly recovering from the financial crisis. In 2015 the market capitalization of all listed Polish companies achieved almost 40% of GDP. WSE created also a special separate stock market called New Connect which lists over 100 SMEs. As Poland proved to possess well developed foreign-exchange and equity markets as well as effective stock market monitoring activities and regulations, in 2018 the country joined the prestigious FTSE group of developed markets being the first and only state from the post-soviet world. An important step was also made to secure gas independence from Russia. With national reserves of natural gas fulfilling around 40% of yearly demand, Poland have been forced to import the lacking amount from Russia, for prices exceeding the market values and on take-or-pay contracts. The gas terminal in Świnoujście, opened in 2015, allowed to diversify the imports of this resource. With the expected successful completion of the Baltic Pipe project in 2023 and a new floating gas station in Gdańsk being developed by the current Law and Justice government, Poland is expected to become fully independent from Russian gas. Despite undisputable successes in improving infrastructure and the business environment in Poland, Donald Tusk’s administration was constantly neglecting the needs of raising the life conditions of less wealthy citizens. Only a limited part of society, concentrated in a few large towns benefited from the growing prosperity. Social exclusion was forcing young people for a further emigration. The reluctancy to limit junk contracts, the rise of retirement age and the idea of sending 6-years old children to school decreased the popularity of the ruling party decreased the popularity of the government. In addition to that, Polish public finances reached constitutional limits forcing the governments to search for other sources, from further privatization to taking money from the Open Pension Funds (Morawski, 2018). In consequence, in 2015 they lost both the parliamentary and presidential elections.

3.3 The new state-led capitalism of “Law and Justice”

As Kołodko said, Donald Tusk’s party lost the elections due to its consequence in introducing Polish neoliberalism, with the aim of enriching the minority at the cost of the majority (Kołodko, 2017). That indeed is a right conclusion, as the main promise that took Law and Justice to power was undoubtedly the 500+ programme (a monthly allowance of 500zł (125 euro) to each child under the age of 18). Unlike the previous government, the new cabinet led by Beata Szydło, exchanged later for Mateusz Morawiecki, was not reluctant with introducing several deep reforms. During 4 years, the social policy was widely extended. The core programmes include 500+, a one third increase in minimal pensions, 13th pensions, a 300zł voucher for children at the beginning of each school year, subsidies to kindergartens and minimal pension for mothers that raised minimum 4 kids and did not participate in the job market. In parallel, with the influence of the “Solidarity” Trade Union in the government, the monthly minimum wage was raised from 1750zł (430 euro) in 2015 to already approved for January 2020 – 3000zł (750 euro). An innovative solution introduced this year was the income tax exemption for young people under 26 years old. This idea, with the objective to persuade young people not to leave the country, allows them to earn almost 20% higher salary than their older counterparts doing the same job. Those policies gave the ruling party great social support which was not undermined even by very controversial changes in the judiciary system, including the Constitutional Tribunal, the Supreme Court and the National Council of the Judiciary, in a great extent dominated now by conservative members, supporters of the government. Although the ideological propaganda of the ruling party is religious-conservative, the economic policy is ruled almost independently by the Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who originally was not connected with the party officials but came from the business environment. Morawiecki’s “Strategy of the Reasonable Development” announced in 2017 is aimed to boost the economic growth and help Poland escape the middle-income trap. This plan is largely inspired by the success of East Asian model and the theory of New Structural Economics of the World Bank economist Justin Yifu Lin who argues that in order to continue economic development a country needs to constantly upgrade its industrial structure due to changing factor endowments at different stages of development. In this process of facilitating industrial upgrading the government should play a key role (Lin, 2012). In the case of Poland, wide reindustrialization plans has been conducted since 2016, with a slogan of rebuilding Poland’s industrial potential destroyed by the neoliberal transition. New business-government partnership in key sectors of the Polish industry have emerged and the state provides support for upgrading industrial processes in companies like the cooper producer KGHM or the holding Polish Armaments Group that is benefitting from historical value Polish-US offset agreements. One of the key sources of such support is the newly created Polish Development Fund (PDF). It provides financial assistance for new and existent Polish companies, acts as a shareholder in many SOEs and helps them to expand abroad. The PDF plays also a key role in assisting national exporters and building a strong Polish mark. The government began also renationalization, which aims to create strong Polish business leaders. The most significant example is the government’s acquisition of the second largest Polish bank Pekao. As for December 2019 domestic companies had a major presence in the financial sector with PZU as the biggest insurer holding alone 45% of the market and domestic banks accounting for over 60% of the sector. The energy and natural resources sector were totally dominated by public firms, while in the telecommunication sector the biggest domestic private companies competed with three foreign owned enterprises. An important part of the “reasonable development” is also the regional policy. Poorer, eastern Poland became a special beneficiary of this program. Neglected by previous governments, now experiences a boom in infrastructure development and attracting investors. Although there is a need to wait for the long term effects of the policy changes, the short term are already visible. Since 2017 the GDP growth increased to almost 5% and keeps its level above 4% year to year. The rise of consumption connected with social policies was the main driver of this change, however, according to the National Statistics Office, state investments are playing a bigger role in the last few quarters.


The table below presents a summary of the main characteristics of institutions forming Poland’s economic system in three different periods. The first, which I named “Gradually-Reforming Communist Economy”, refers to the institutions that emerged after the Second World War and were slowly but gradually evolving due to events and policies described in chapter 1. The next column called “Dependent Neoliberal Economy” describe the features of institutions developed during the 1990s and 2000s when the biggest changes were introduced and when neoliberal policy dominated, as described in chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3. The last column – “Liberal State-led Economy”, presents the new characteristics of Poland’s economic system that started to emerge since the policy-switch in 2015 discussed in chapter 3.

Communist Economy
1950 to 1989
Dependent Neoliberal
1990 to the beginning
of 2010s
Liberal State-led
From 2015
mechanism and role the of government
From centrally
planned economy to planned market-based
economy (decreasing
role of government
Liberal and
competitive market with moderate role of
the government, in
some degree
dependent from
hierarchies in MNCs
Liberal and
competitive market as
main coordinator with increasing role of the
Corporate governance
– main sources of
raising investments
State-owned banks,
foreign loans taken by the state
Internally generated
funds for domestic
SMEs, FDI and foreign bank lending for
MNCs, domestic stock market and state financing for SOEs
Mainly domestic bank lending and domestic stock market, FDI and
foreign bank financing for some foreign
companies, state and EU financing plays a relevant role for some
new enterprises
Industrial relationsConstantly growing
increasing collective
bargaining power to an extremely high degree in the 1980s when managers and
the government were forced to closely cooperate with employees to reach any major decisions
Very low unionization
in private enterprises
where wage
negotiations take
place at the company
level. Collective
bargaining only in the public sector, where trade unions of
miners, doctors,
nurses, teachers and railway workers have
a significant degree of
bargaining power.
The same as in the previous period with
the addition that the government plays a key role in wage fixing
by constant,
significant increases of
the minimum wage
apprenticeship for
industry-specific skills more important than
general education
importance of
vocational training,
participation in
general higher
Education system
focused on general skills, terciary education with very high rate of participation
Transfer of innovationsKey role of the
government in
providing cooperation
between industries
and introducing
Important role of FDI in transferring
innovations and
increasing productivity
which benefits also domestic firms
Since 2010 domestic
companies took the lead in increasing the
share of technologically
advanced products
(PEI, 2019)
Table 1: Main characteristics of Poland’s economic system through the past 75 years


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Author: Mateusz Szerszen