POLISH NEWS BYTES - Febuary 14, 2007
Compiled by Our Warsaw Correspondent Robert Strybel

Poland's economy grew by a whopping 5.8 percent in 2006, according to preliminary figures released by the government recently. That marked a sizable increase over the 3.5 percent in 2005 gross domestic product (GDP) achieved in 2005. The strong economic growth was the result of increased consumer spending and rising exports amid a favorable international business climate.

Russia has threatened Poland with drastic cuts in its Polish imports from the current $4 billion to $1.5-$2 billion in retaliation for Warsaw’s veto on partnership negotiations with the European Union. Last autumn Poland vetoed the start of EU-Russian talks after a year-long Kremlin embargo on Polish meat and other food products. The Kremlin began boycotting Polish food imports to get even with Poland for encouraging pro-Western movements in the former Soviet republics.

Poland is being pressured by the European Union to lower its budget deficit or face possible cuts in EU aid to Poland. With its population of over 38 million, Poland is the largest economy of the newcomers who joined the EU in May 2004. The Polish government is under constant pressure from disgruntled groups such as health workers and teachers to increase pay or face strikes and other protests. Hungary and Malta have also been told to lower their deficits.

Poland is a European property boom leader, making the purchase of real estate the best investment at present. According to figures released by the London-based Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, house prices in Poland rose by 33 percent in 2006, following on from the 2005 growth of 28 per cent. Eventually the boom is expected to peter out.

Several thousand mourners turned out to pay their respects to 24-year-old PFC Piotr Nita who was killed in Iraq, when his convoy struck a roadside bomb. Nita’s funeral was held at the church in Blakowa Wola near the central town of Radomsko in Łódź voivodship. Three other Polish soldiers were injured in the explosion which occurred some 13 miles from the Polish base in Diwaniyah. Nita’s death has brought the Polish death toll in Iraq to 24.

Polish and foreign environmentalists are up in arms against Polish government plans to build a motorway bypassing the northeastern city of Suwałki through the Rospuda Valley wetlands. They argue that the project will threaten this natural haven for unique plant and animal species. Greenpeace, the international environmental watchdog, is calling for the dismissal of Poland’s Environment Minister Jan Szyszko who approved the project. The European Commission (the EU government) has also voiced concern over the plans.

Baby bonuses as high as $30,000. are being given to mothers in Germany who bear a child. Seriously threatened by depopulation, the German authorities have decided to follow the lead of neighboring Poland, which introduced a baby bonus in 2006. However, the Polish incentive of a mere several hundred dollars is not expected to noticeably encourage child-bearing. Germany now has the European Union’s lowest birthrate of 8.6 births per 1,000 population, and Poland has the fifth lowest – 9.3.

Jewish property-restitution groups appear to be latching onto non-Jewish claimants as a way to facilitate the recovery of property lost in Poland during and after World War II. By joining forces with the estimated 80 to 90 percent of the non-Jews to whom the contested property belongs, Jews hope to more effectively press for a compensation law. It was announced that the next international claims conference would be held in Poland for the first time.

Poland is planning to dig a canal through the Vistula Spit to ensure independent access to the sea for the now landlocked Port of Elbląg, and the European Regional Development Fund will foot the bill. The Russians have banned Polish navigation on their half of the Vistula Lagoon, thereby depriving Elbląg of access to the Baltic reprisals against Poland’s support of pro-democracy movements in the ex-Soviet republics.

Pro-life activist Łukasz Wróbel has been acquitted of “creating a public threat” by a court in the eastern city of Lublin which ruled that “freeedom of speech takes precedence over forcing drastic or unwanted images on the public.” Wróbel had juxtaposed 14 large photos of aborted fetuses and children killed or maimed by war. The same court had fined Wróbel 2,000 złotys last June, but an appeals court overturned the verdict and ordered a retrial.

Poland’s auto market has been improving after years of decline due to widespread private imports of second-hand cars from the European Union. According to Samar, the institute monitoring Poland’s car market, Poles bought 22,700 new cars in January, or 21.7 percent more than in the same period of 2006. Toyota sold 3,170 cars, dethroning the Volkswagen-linked Czech Skoda which fell into second place with sales of 2,810 units. An up and coming brand is the GM group’s Chevrolet. Only 755 vehicles were sold in January, but that is a 76.4 percent increase over the same period of 2006.

The Polish ship Odra has rescued a 19-year-old fisherman whose incapacitated boat had been drifting some 130 miles off his Caribbean home island of Dominique. The fisherman, identified as Jan Bedminster, had been without food and drinking water for a week. Dominique (population 69,000) declared its independence of Britain in 1978.

The Vatican has officially defrocked more than a dozen rebel nuns, barricaded in a convent for nearly two years in the eastern town of Kazimierz Dolny. In a decree read from the pulpit, the Vatican’s Congregation for Religious stated that the women now living at the convent were no longer members of the Sisters of the Family of Bethany. The conflict erupted when the nuns refused to accept a new mother superior to replace their leader, Sister Jadwiga, who refused to step down claiming to have had “private visions” telling her to stay.

Zdzisław Rurarz, one of two Polish ambassadors who defected to the US in protest against martial law in 1981, died recently at his Virginia home at the age of 76. Rurarz had his property confiscated and was sentenced to death in absentia for high treason by a communist court–a sentence that was never annulled. US Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe has issued a statement praising Ruraz for the courage of standing up for his beliefs.

A Nobel Peace Prize campaign is under way to honor 97-year-old Irena Sendler who managed to rescue more than 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto in World War II. An activist of Żegota, the Polish underground government’s Jew-saving organization, she was one of the few ethnic Poles allowed into the ghetto by the Nazis. She led a clandestine group of 10 Polish women who smuggled the children out and placed them under ther care of Polish families.

Healthy Polish delicacies are being promoted by Oleko, Poland's first certified organic food brand The firm made its market début in Warsaw with piping hot pierogi, smoked garlic sausage, rye bread, sękacz (log cake), cherry and red currant liqueurs and German-Polish potato salad. Oleko’s international début took place at the Organic Trade Fair in Nuremberg, Germany. Polish organic farms and processing plants are still in their infancy, but have increased from a mere 27 in 1991 to some 13,000 at present.

Poles in the regained territories will become the rightful owners of the homes they have been living in for generations under a bill being prepared by Poland’s ruling conservative Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) party. After World War II Poland was compensated with former German lands for the one half of pre-war Poland annexed by the Soviet Union and never returned. If adopted, the law would give Poles deeds to the former German real estate they are now renting or leasing and prevent future German property claims.

Panic broke out aboard an airliner bound from the southwestern city of Wrocław to Dublin, Ireland, when foul-smelling smoke filled the cabin. The plane made an emergency landing in Wrocław, where a de-icing compound was found to have made its way into the ventilation system, causing the terrifying, though harmless mist. Following the ordeal, 21 of the 157 passenger refused to reboard the plane and had their fares refunded by Central Wings, LOT Airline’s budget carrier.

U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe joined forces with his Polish counterpart Janusz Reiter during trade mission to Atlanta, Georgia, to promote Poland as a still-to-be-discovered, inexpensive haven for American businessmen and tourists. Although it has had a capitalist economy for 17 years, Poland remains a good value, Ashe emphasized. The labor force is relatively cheap with skilled workers earning about $600 a month, and five-star hotels in Warsaw the capital can cost as little as $150. a night.

Dancing, singing and prayers accompanied the reopening of Poland’s first synagogue since World War II to be renovated entirely through the efforts of the country’s Jewish community without state or foreign aid. The synagogue in the eastern city of Lublin is located in a large six-story building that once housed Yeshiva Chachmei, Europe’s largest rabbinical school. The ceremony, which attracted participants from around the globe, was presided over by Poland’s chief rabbi, Jewish American Michael Schudrich.

Sixty percent of Poland’s Catholic priests want the right to marry and have families, according to a survey published by Poland`s respected Catholic intellectual weekly Tygodnik Powszechny. But according to an as yet unpublished study, conducted by Dr. Józef Baniak of Poznań’s Adam Mickiewicz University, only a third of the young priests who quit the priesthood do so for the sake of women. “The main reason (for quitting the priesthood ) are existential problems and ideals. First comes a priest’s identity crisis and then he looks for someone in whom he can confide,” Baniak explained.

There are now 96 mobile phones for every 100 Poles, according to data released by Poland’s Central statistical Office. The figures for the last day of 2006 showed there were 36,757,800 cellular phones in this country of 38,129,000. Although statistically correct, the figures may be misleading, because is many urban Poles have more than one mobile phone, whereas in poorer rural areas of eastern Poland (including Białystok, Lublin and Rzeszów) many people have none.

Multi-millionaire Henryk Stokłosa, 58, is being sought on suspicion of bribing judges to drop environmental-pollution charges against his companies. He made his fortune by processing agricultural waste and now owns an agricultural, food-processing and waste-treatment empire in western Poland worth an estimated $240 million. Police stopped Stokłosa’s chauffeur disguised to resemble his boss – a ruse that probably enabled Stokłosa to flee the country.

15.4 million passengers were handled by Polish airports in 2006, 74 percent more than in 2004, according to figures released by Poland’s Office of Civil Aviation. Warsaw’s Chopin International Airport received 8.1 million passengers in 2006, a 33 percent growth rate over the 2004 level, but the country’s remaining airports scored a combined increase of 164 percent. They include Kraków’s John Paul II Airport (2.3 million passengers), Katowice-Pyrzowice (1.4 million) and Gdańsk’s Lech Wałęsa Airport (1.3 million).

The Polish Supreme Court has upheld a sentence of 2.5 years in prison and demotion to the rank of private handed down last October by a military court on a Polish military intelligence officer convicted of spying for the Untied States. Col. Zbigniew Sz. had been in charge of overseeing military attachés at Polish embassies abroad, when he began espionage activities. Discovered in 1996, he was leniently treated by Poland’s then post-communist authorities, and on two previous occasions the Supreme Court overturned lower-court convictions against him.

Potatoes may prevent heart attacks, a team of medical researchers at Toruń’s Copernicus University has found. After tests run on 150 volunteers, a research team headed by Professor Michał Komoszyński found that potatoes contain a substance that helps lower the body’s level of adenosine diphosphate which fosters the formation of blood clots leading to heart attacks and strokes. A way of harnessing the substance for therapeutic purposes is now being sought.

America’s Sikorsky Aircraft has taken control of southern Poland’s PZL-Mielec aviation works for the price of nearly $100 million. The factory is due to be modernized and retooled for the production of Blackhawk combat helicopters. Yet another of the country’s leading industrial plants has fallen into foreign hands as a result of “privatization”.

Poland’s 15% unemployment was seen as the country’s most serious problem by 73 percent of those surveyed recently by CBOS, Poland’s major polling organization. Crime was the problem cited by 72 percent of the respondents, and equal access to free health care was the issue that most troubled 61 percent. Other issues included equal employment opportunities (60%), malfunctioning courts of law (58%), inadequate aid to families (57%) and Poland’s international security (50%). Only 23 percent identified the need to decommunize the country as a major issue.

Poland’s oldest woman died recently at her home in Ostróda, Poland, just months before celebrating her 114th birth on May 1st. Born in 1893 in what is now Lithuania, Benedykta Mackieło was repatriated to Ostróda after her area became part of the Soviet Union. There she began work at a sawmill in Poland’s north woods region of Mazury. Happily married for 80 years, she is remembered as a tranquil, contented and easy-going individual.

The “belly-button battle” in a high school in the Baltic port of Kołobrzeg has been won by its principal, Lidia Mikołajek. She requires girls coming to school in bare-midriff blouses to wear frumpy-looking nylon smocks of the type used by cleaning women and kids in orphanages. Almost overnight girls started wearing normal-length blouses and sweaters to class. “School is not a beach or fashion show,” noted the no-nonsense principal.