Twenty-five years after communism's demise, Poland has arrived
'Solaris' buses are pictured in Warsaw, on June 1, 2014 - by Janek Skarzynski
As Poland this week marks 25 years since its first dose of democracy heralded the end of communism, the global footprint of firms like bus-maker Solaris are symbolic of a country that is light years away from old stereotypes of rickety horses-drawn carts in the Polish countryside.
Poland held on June 4, 1989, its first semi-democratic elections in which some of the parliamentary seats were contested, triggering the peaceful demise of communist rule and opening the door to a new Central European heavyweight.
"We started with about 30 workers and today we employ 2,500 people in Poland and 500 abroad," Solaris spokesman Mateusz Figaszewski told AFP.
Designed and assembled near the western city of Poznan since the firm was built from scratch in 1996, its buses, trams and trolley buses now cruise the streets of 600 cities, including Berlin, Paris, Athens, and as far afield as Dubai.
Solaris has captured 13 percent of the city bus market in neighbouring Germany, an extraordinary feat in the European powerhouse that is home to auto-giants Mercedes and BMW.
"The creation of Solaris, and thousands of other companies like it, was made possible by the political and economic changes after the fall of communism," Figaszewski says.
"It's been an exceptional quarter century for Poland. We haven't experienced this kind of situation for 400 years", says Mariusz Jarosinski, a historian and journalist with the Polish PAP news agency.
For Irena Eris, owner of the eponymous cosmetics brand, Poland's 1989 elections were pivotal.
"We all voted. When the results rolled in, we entered a different reality -- the market economy. New prospects for development opened up for my company," she told AFP in her ultramodern laboratory in the Warsaw suburb of Piaseczno.
Today, the company founded with just one employee in 1983 under communism when private enterprise was frowned upon, exports its high-end cosmetics to 40 countries worldwide.
The Eris line is part of France's prestigious Comite Colbert, a luxury brand group that includes the likes of Chanel, Givenchy and Hermes.
"We are the only non-French cosmetics brand to be part of it," Eris says with more than a hint of pride.
- The greatest beneficiary -
Poland's shift to capitalism had a rough start but quickly became the envy of many.
The end of communism brought instant bankruptcy. The new leaders responded with so-called "shock therapy" reforms that ushered in growth by 1992 that has lasted ever since.
Over the past 25 years, Poland's GDP has more than doubled while exports have multiplied 15-fold, from $10 billion in 1989 to about $155 billion (211 billion euros) last year.
Infrastructure has improved beyond recognition since Warsaw joined the EU a decade ago. The country of 38 million is the largest recipient of the bloc's structural funds.
Billions of euros have been used to replace a communist-era network of derelict and dangerous mostly single-lane roads with nearly 3,000 kilometres (1,860 miles) of motorways.
Hefty investments in the agricultural and food sectors have made Poland one of Europe's leading agricultural exporters.
It has not been an entirely smooth transition. Persistent joblessness has triggered a mass exodus of around two million Poles, mostly the young, to other EU countries over the past decade.
Successive governments have proved incapable of stemming the flow, with experts warning the brain drain could hurt growth in years to come.
But overall, the changes have been positive.
"If we compare the Poland of today to 25 years ago, it's quite simply another world, we've landed on a different planet," Witold Orlowski, a PricewaterhouseCoopers analyst, told AFP.
"Today, the Polish economy is part of the world economy, while back then it was similar to that of Ukraine," said the former presidential advisor.
Having made the most of its political freedoms and European largesse, Poland now wants to play in the political big leagues.
Poland has been a key actor in efforts to defuse the Ukraine crisis, and its prime minister, Donald Tusk, has led calls for an EU-wide energy union to protect against future attempts by Russia to cut off the continent's gas supply or drive up prices.
Warsaw is now also eyeing some of the highest offices in the EU and recently proposed Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski as its next diplomatic chief.