- The Washington Times - Monday, November 9, 2009

KRAKOW, Poland | A black Trabant pulled up in front of the Sheraton hotel and its driver helped passengers out of the boxy, cut-rate car that remains a symbol of communism two decades after its collapse.

The “communist tour” of Krakow was over. The 23-year-old guide, Eryk Grasela, had taken a Washington Times reporter and photographer to Nowa Huta, a suburb built in the 1950s as a “model communist city” and counterpoint to “bourgeois” old Krakow, long known as Poland’s cultural capital.

While other former communist countries have tried to erase many Cold War memories since they became democracies in 1989, Poland has embraced its past, made the best of it and moved on.

Today, Poles seem more satisfied with their lives than many others in the region.

“For the most part, the transformation is over — the economy is doing well, even in a global recession, and people are happy,” said Mr. Grasela’s boss, Michal Ostrowski.

In a true capitalist spirit, Mr. Ostrowski, 31, has not only benefited from the market economy that Poland adopted 20 years ago but also has made money by showcasing a period of history that his peers in neighboring countries either know little about or would rather forget. He founded his company, Crazy Guides Tours, five years ago and now has about a dozen employees.

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Although some disillusionment with democracy has set in throughout Central and Eastern Europe, Poles and Czechs are the most satisfied with the way their post-communist lives have turned out, according to various surveys.

“I think we should be very happy about what happened in Poland,” said Hubert Maruszkin, a 25-year-old journalist in Warsaw, citing the many opportunities young people here have today, compared with in 1989, and the country’s economy, which grew by 5 percent last year.

According to a poll by the Pew Research Center in Washington released last week, 47 percent of Poles said they are better off now than under communism. The figure was 29 percent in Slovakia and 8 percent in Hungary.

Poland has made steady progress,” said Charles Gati, a specialist on Eastern Europe at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “It’s a remarkable example of what can be done under difficult circumstances.”

Another success story is Slovenia, which was not included in the Pew survey, he said. “Its economy has done well, and political parties have worked well together. It was the first ex-East-bloc nation to adopt the euro,” the decade-old common European currency.

Mr. Gati’s native Hungary, however, has been a disappointment, he said. “Hungary 20 years ago was the leader of the pack, and stayed that way in the ‘90s. In the last decade, however, political infighting” has grown, with “unbelievably nasty” politics and “irresponsible spending to buy votes.”

Political infighting is familiar to Poles, too, and “people are disappointed with the political class” because they “don’t focus on the problems that need to be solved,” said Jacek Strzemieczny, 60, founder and president of the Center for Citizenship Education, a nonprofit group.

Corruption, crime and illegal drugs were cited as Poland’s main problems by the respondents in the Pew survey. “Racist attitudes are growing,” as are anti-Semitism and homophobia, Mr. Strzemieczny said. The country’s infrastructure and road network, while better, are improving at a slower pace than expected.

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