The former PRL, i.e. the Polish People's Republic Party in Poland - created in 1944 under the supervision of the victorious USSR - denied for years the realities of the market economy. The state owned almost all means of industrial production, like factories, farms, but also land, housing, ports, ships, vehicles, in short almost everything in sight belonged to the state. Thus, in theory output of the industry and even the agriculture, as well as the prices, could be decided by state.
In addition, the economy plan, as the socialist economists assured, would guarantee a virtual Garden of Eden, where the inflation would be simply prohibited and everyone would live forever and prosper.
It seemed all so easy, simply logical, and it worked for a while. A box of matches was 10 groszy for years, just as a newspaper was half a zloty.
Soon enough, it turned out that things were not that simple. Human beings, selfish as humans are, party members included, leading the corruption race, were more interested in gathering private assets than contributing to the common wealth. Soon enough, due to the shortage of most basic products, food not the least, the black market flourished. Everything, not only food and other products, could be bought for a (steep) price on the black market.
It was soon pitifully obvious that the plan economy was a paper tiger. Although, according to the government reports broadcast on the radio, seen on the TV/news, or printed in the press, the economy grew at unprecedented rate year by years, the pathetically empty shelves in the shops contradicted the euphoric reports.
The specific type of socialist jokes described perfectly the economy, for instance. ""What's the difference between the meat shop now and before the war?" The funny answer: "Before the war there was sign on the the shop that said "Butcher." You went inside and there was meat. Nowadays, the sign says "Meat", you go inside and there is only a butcher."
The reality caught up with the lies. The strikes, when the prices of food were to rise, were a rule; the riots their logical consequence. Every time the prices went up, the protesting people were killed in the streets, the tanks and the army called upon to help the Police to restore law and order.
Surprisingly the oppressive system fell apart, not because of a violent uprising, but simply because people in power decided to throw in the towel in 1989 - a rather unprecedented capitulation and a peaceful change of guard. The system was at the end of the road and there simply was nowhere to go from there.
The old king was dead, but the new one was an unknown card. At the time, people were expecting a lot, but no one knew for certain what the future would bring. Now, sixteen years later, they know and the majority of Poles is not sure the overall change has been for the better.
Maybe there was not much of a change, really. Many of the old communist oppressors seized the opportunity to become staunched capitalist. After all, any regime consists a large number of opportunists and turncoats looking only for opportunities, regardless of ideology. These kinds of people, unfortunately, are often the most successful - under any regime; even during the fascist occupation during the Second World War, there were Poles that prospered - and they were also the ones that knew how to succeed under the new regime. They have no morals, believing only in Mammon, money being their only purpose and motivation.
And the chaos after the dissolution of the socialist republic gave these kinds of people ample opportunities in this respect. Many became millionaires, like Mr. Walesa, living in a small palace, solidarity long forgotten.
True, market economy provided opportunities for some, but brought also suffering for many more. As a result, although the shelves of the shops are filled with products, as many as 60% of Poles live under the existence limit. Many are homeless. The new Poland is a harsh country for those that are not prepared for the realities of the capitalistic market where dog eats dog and only the fittest succeed.
Is it no wonder that, in this situation, the Poles, not unlike the people of other former socialist regimes, look back with nostalgia. True, there was no freedom of speech, but on the other hand, you could joke.
The money was scarce and there was always the problem with the food, but on the other hand the society was softer, in some respects even more friendly. In contrast to today, a few were rich, but the rest was equally poor making it easier to feel solidarity with your fellow countrymen. Today, a few are very rich, while a vast majority is extremely poor. It does not make an average Pole happy. They look back and wonder and reminisce.
Everyone had work, there was a good health system provided free of charge by the state, and everyone could go on vacation to the hotels and sanatoria almost free of charge. The housing, although scarce, was extremely subsidized. The higher education was free and open to everyone, and once you finished you were virtually guaranteed a job. There was so much that was good and that got lost in the regime change. Hey, and don't forget that the movie and theatre tickets were very cheap. Everyone could have fun.
And now what? Where do we go from here? No going back, that's for certain. How do the Poles move forward from here, especially taking the rising unemployment levels? No wonder they ask themselves: Where is the promised land, were we not supposed to ride a Rolls Royce, or at least a Mercedes, to work? Don't they live like that in the West? Now that we are in the EU, who stole the golden goose?
It is true that we are allowed to travel around the world, now that we have a free country, but who will pay for the tickets. A night in a hotel equals a monthly income? Better stay at home.
It seems that the Poles, taking in account all the factors, are unsure whether the change was for the better. One philosophical person states: "True, not long ago things reminded of a circus or a zoo - there were bars, but everyone at least was regularly receiving a full bowl of something".
But there are those that rightly point out, that "once you could see the bottom in the bowl, we were given food coupons. No wonder the regime broke down."
And the economy plan was undoubtedly at fault: as one Polish actor used to say: "Introduce our economical model in Sahara and soon you'll run out of sand."
It is true that the new Poland is a much freer country than its predecessor, but as somebody pointed out: "People tire fast of freedom, what is left is the gray reality of the everyday life. Who cares that you can say what you want, if no one listens. And the free word won't buy your kids university education or a new flat."
On the whole the Poles are angry. The swap does not seem fair. No one expected a new system to have that many faults. The old one was familiar, like aged, worn out shoes; the new one, although it looks good on the outside, does not feel, as yet, comfortable at all.
Possibly in a generation or two, the general perception of democracy by the Poles will change, but for now, there is a vast disillusion that can turn the country in a wrong direction. As the late Polish Pope John Paul stated, "A democracy without moral values easily changes into open or camouflaged totalitarians system." Poles, beware.