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Poland: Finance Minister Departs But Economic Policy Continues

Prague, 4 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - Poland today moved to replace its most powerful economic official, but is certain to continue market-oriented policies.

Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Grzegorz Kolodko, who during the last three years successfully steered the fastest growing economy in Central Europe, resigned this morning. The resignation was accepted by President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who simultaneously appointed his economic adviser Marek Belka as new Finance Minister and a Deputy Prime Minister. According to law, the president both accepts resignations and appoints members of government on the recommendation of the Prime Minister.

Kolodko's resignation was widely expected, with the media openly speculating during recent days about the timing of the move. The reasons were both personal and political.

Kolodko has been a difficult man to work with. A gifted and hard-working economist with penchant for fiscal discipline but also arrogant manners, he repeatedly clashed with government colleagues and other economic officials on policy issues. A non-party professional, he had little appreciation of fine points of politics -- a major flaw in a member of the coalition government.

Kolodko was brought into the government in 1994 by a coalition of leftist post-communist and peasant parties. But he continued market reforms introduced by democratic governments after the fall of communism. More recently Kolodko was a force behind Poland's long-term reformist economic plans: the so-called "Strategy 2000," a program for accelerated market development for the years to come that called for five percent or more growth until the end of the current decade.

Driven by economic priorities, Kolodko strongly opposed any moves threatening to increase inflation. This exposed him to criticism of various populist politicians, particularly from the peasant party but also from other groups as well. Last week various Warsaw newspapers reported that both President Kwasniewski and Prime Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz decided that they "could not work with Kolodko any more." Today's move only confirmed that.

Cimoszewicz was quick to affirm, however, that Kolodko's departure would have little or no effect on economic policy.

"The personnel change in this post does not allow anything that would place a question mark on the fate of Polish economic reforms and our economic policy," Cimoszewicz said this morning.

Kwasniewski's appointment of Belka seems to assure the continuity. Belka is also a non-party professional economist. An author of works on market economy, Milton Freedman and the economic policies of the administration of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, he worked as a consultant with the World Bank and other international economic institutions. For the last year he has served as an economic adviser in Kwasniewski's office, having been recommended to that position by the "father" of Poland's market reforms, Leszek Balcerowicz.

During the last two years, Poland posted high rates of growth (seven percent in 1995 and six percent in 1996); further growth is envisaged this year. Unemployment hovers around 13 percent. Inflation in 1996 reached about 18.5 percent. It is to come down this year to about 13 percent, according to government plans.

Poland is scheduled to stage parliamentary elections this year. They could lead to changes in government. But the policy of market reforms is certain to continue, irrespective of any potential political transformation.

In some ways, this appears symptomatic of current politics in Poland and in other parts of Central Europe. Principles of political democracy and market economy have been accepted by all major political groups everywhere in the region.

This, in itself, has changed the character of the political process. While only a few years ago, this process focused on the domination of communist parties over largely placid societies and small groups of determined dissidents, today it centers on widespread consensus about priorities with differences among separate groups limited to timing of specific measures and methods of their implementation. The Polish change in economic leadership only illustrates this trend.