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Poland: Analysis from Washington -- Redrawing Regional Borders Draws Protest

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 3 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- A protest in Poland against the consolidation of that country's 49 provinces into only 12 regions highlights a problem virtually all post-communist countries now face: the rationalization of regional administration and the resistance of local communities to any step in that direction.

Some 1,000 residents from the Polish city of Opole marched in Warsaw on Thursday to protest the government's plan to combine their city into a larger province which would have another city as its capital.

Rallying in front of the Polish parliament, the residents of Opole suggested that their medieval city at the center of a predominantly agricultural region would not fit together well with the coal mining and steel industry center of Katowice.

More immediately, the demonstrators said they feared they will lose both government funding and business income if the consolidation plan goes forward.

Opinion polls conducted since Warsaw announced its plan to consolidate and rationalize the regional bureaucracies show that more than 60% of all Poles approve this measure. But as the demonstration in Warsaw yesterday shows, this change will create a new class of losers as well as one of winners at least in the short term.

And being the more vocal, those likely to suffer from the change have already found an audience in the Polish political elite. Not only opposition deputies but even some of the members of the dominant Solidarity Election Action group have demanded that the government drop, modify, or at least defend its decision.

Other post-communist states are likely to face problems as they move to cut the size of government bureaucracies and increase efficiency in center-periphery relations. But the demonstration in Warsaw is a reminder that these governments will face three interrelated problems:

First, central governments will have to overcome the inertia of the past, the acceptance by local officials and local populations that they have the right to have at least as much power and authority as they have now.

Any move to consolidate regional administrations will cut the number of government jobs in many localities. And it will have the effect of wiping out established ways of doing business.

Second, the post-communist central governments often are likely to face a situation in which local bureaucrats and politicians may be even more entrenched than those at the center.

In many cases, a higher percentage of local officials may be holdovers from the old communist regimes than is the case of the central governments. And even where they are not, the local officials may be even more corrupt and resistant to change than those at the center.

And third, as appears to be the case of Warsaw's problems with the Opole residents, central governments may find that local populations will defend their own regional arrangements against any change even if these same people favor cutting bureaucracy elsewhere by consolidating other provincial governments.

Such apparently inconsistent positions are often found in democracies in the West, where people are quite prepared to back measures in the abstract and for others that they are not prepared to tolerate when applied to themselves.

The difficulties that such regional attachments present to central governments in post-communist countries is likely to make both them and their Western supporters ever more willing to back a highly centralist approach to governance, one that will reduce the importance of all regional governments rather than make remaining ones more efficient.

But to the extent that the central regimes make that choice, they are likely to find themselves in difficulties of another kind: Without significant devolution of power away from the central administrations, many of these countries will not be able to make the transition to more open, democratic and free market societies.

And consequently, what the 1,000 residents of Opole were angry about this week is likely to become an increasingly important part of the struggle both for power and for reform across a region where central governments traditionally have been too strong and regional administrations far too weak.