Poland Table of Contents
In the wake of the Baltic upheavals, Edward Gierek was selected as party chief. A well-connected party functionary and technocrat, Gierek replaced all of Gomulka's ministers with his own followers and blamed the former regime for all of Poland's troubles. Gierek hoped to pacify public opinion by administering a dose of measured liberalization coupled with a novel program of economic stimulation. The center of the program was large-scale borrowing from the West to buy technology that would upgrade Poland's production of export goods. Over the long term, the export goods would pay for the loans and improve Poland's world economic position. The program paid immediate dividends by raising living standards and expectations, but it quickly soured because of worldwide recession, increased oil prices, and the inherent weaknesses and corruption of communist planning and administration. By the mid-1970s, Poland had entered a seemingly irreversible economic nosedive compounded by a crushing burden of external debt. Another attempt to raise food prices in 1976 failed after an additional round of worker protests (see Reliance on Technology in the 1970s , ch. 3).
Domestic economic problems were accompanied by increased pressure from the Soviet Union for closer Polish cooperation with the other members of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon--see Glossary). In 1971 Poland abandoned Gomulka's strict opposition to closer economic integration, and a series of long-term agreements committed Polish resource and capital investment to Soviet-sponsored projects. Such agreements guaranteed Poland access to cheap Soviet raw materials, especially oil and natural gas. Nonetheless, in the 1970s Poland experienced shortages of capital goods such as computers and locomotives because Comecon obligations moved such products out of Poland.
Meanwhile, the Helsinki Accords (see Glossary) of 1975 inspired open dissent over human rights issues. The immediate objects of dissent were the regime's proposal of constitutional amendments that would institutionalize the leading role of the PZPR, Poland's obligations to the Soviet Union, and the withholding of civil rights pending obedience to the state. In 1976 a group of intellectuals formed the Committee for Defense of Workers (Komitet Obrony Robotników--KOR), and students formed the Committee for Student Solidarity. Together those organizations intensified public pressure on Gierek to liberalize state controls, and many publications emerged from underground to challenge official dogma.
By the end of the 1970s, the hard-pressed Gierek regime faced an implicit opposition coalition of disaffected labor, dissident intelligentsia, and Roman Catholic clergy and lay spokespeople sympathetic to dissident activities. Democratically oriented activists grew more adept at defending workers' interests and human rights, a strategy that paid off handsomely in 1980. Under the stellar leadership of its longtime primate Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, the Catholic Church attained unrivaled moral authority in the country. The prestige of the church reached a new peak in 1978 with the elevation to the papacy of the archbishop of Kraków, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla. As John Paul II, Wojtyla became the first non-Italian pope since the sixteenth century. The election of the Polish pope sparked a surge of joy and pride in the country, and John Paul's triumphant visit to his homeland in 1979 did much to precipitate the extraordinary events of the next year.
Data as of October 1992