Polish Toledo

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Fast growing sector for Poland

25 years ago, when a visitor to Poland toured an agriculture museum, the museum's staff fired up an old American tractor, given to Poland by Americans not long after the war. As it chugged around a field, belching blue smoke, the visitor happened to see a neighboring field and its farmer working the land by horse.

There we some large co-operative farms, but back then Poland was mostly peppered with hundreds of thousands of small family owned subsistence plots that struggled to provide farmers with a proper income. Many of them took jobs in other sectors and farmed just for their own family's needs.

Things are different now. “This is a golden age of Polish farming,” says Jerzy Wilkin, an economics professor at Warsaw University. “Never before has such large amounts of money flowed into agriculture.”

The trigger for this golden age was Poland's accession to the European Union in 2004, which is somewhat ironic as Polish farmers were at the forefront of the anti-EU membership campaign. But instead of their farms drowning under a tidal wave of subsidized produce from the West, as farmers had feared, they've seen the money roll in. Farm incomes have tripled in the last ten years.

Polish farms benefited from increased domestic spending on agriculture. The dairy sector, for instance, has flourished; partly fueled by a need to comply with costly regulations governing modernization plans. This, in turn, has attracted international agri-food companies to Poland, and helped prompt an export boom.

Official Polish figures for last year put agri-food exports at $27 billion, an increase of 11.5% compared with the previous year. Growth for this year will be 10%, according to government estimates.  Poland even surpassed China as the world's biggest exporter of apples in 2013. Stanislaw Kalemba, who was agriculture minister up until early March, boasted “agriculture is one of the main pillars of the economy”.

The Ukrainian crisis might have an adverse effect on Polish farming. Last year exports to the Russian Federation amounted to $1.7 billion, but Russia tends to impose import bans on countries it wants to put under pressure. Polish farmers will probably be among those who will feel the vengeful wrath of a Kremlin angered by EU sanctions.

Poland up to speed

About two years ago I posted a story about Poland's new supercar called the Arrinera, which just might put a Lamborghini to shame. Body panels are made of space age materials consisting of carbon fiber and Kevlar, its 650 horsepower engine can reach 60mph in 3 seconds, (which is about the time it takes to pronounce a multi syllable Polish last name) and a long list of high tech items such as  thermal-imaging cameras definitely shows Poland it capable of manufacturing vehicles on the cutting edge of technology and at much less cost than other countries.

The same is true in the field of military hardware.

We've come a long way since the first tanks were little more than moving metal boxes with a little canon poking out of a turret. Since WWI a steady progression in design brought us to the Abrams M1A series first made in 1976 and is currently the gold standard in mechanized armor.

Now engineers are building a stealth tank armed with infrared camouflage and a radar profile that would make any fighter pilot jealous. And no, it's not being made by the United States.

The PL-01 is Poland's newest battle tank, and scheduled for production as early as 2018.

The tank has a 350-degree viewing arc for maximum situational awareness and fires a 120 mm gun at a rate of six rounds a minute. And if it's stealthy  as they claim it could slip through a battlefield undetected.

Watch the video to see its capabilities.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Vojtek The Fuzzy Polish Soldier

Vojtek: a Polish soldier
One of the least known heroes of World War II served in the Polish Second Army Corp. Polish troops fought in Italy at Monte Cassino, winning the battle when the Americans and British failed to overtake the Germans. Recognized as the bloodiest campaign in the European theater since the war began, the Poles after sustaining tremendous loss of fighters conquered the objective when no other allied army could. And, they did it with Vojtek the Polish soldier bear in their ranks.

It is virtually undisputed from the time of Bolesław the Brave through the 18th century Poland had the most astonishing cavalry ever know to mankind. Decimating the Teutonic Knights at the Battle of Grunwald in 1410 to saving Europe by defeating the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire from over running the Continent at the Battle of Vienna on 9-12 1683, Polish Hussars were a formidable force feared by opponents.

Long after the glory days when the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was the largest and perhaps the most powerful nation in Europe, Polish people got about as much respect as Lois Lerner formerly of the IRS, and the once-proud nation had been carved up more times than Joan Rivers’ face.  

The early days of World War II was no exception, when the unsuspecting, peaceful Poles suddenly found themselves getting sneak-attack double-teamed by the dictators of Germany and the Soviet Union. Sure, the Fascists and Communists hated each other, but apparently they were willing to join forces and work together to oppress the citizens of Poland, steal their land, and imprison anyone they pleased. 

Of course we know what the Germans did to the 3 million Catholics and 3 million Jews of Poland who were sent to concentration camps or faced summary execution, but it certainly wasn’t any picnic being on the receiving end of the sickle and hammer either.  

Captured Polish POWs that weren't executed on the spot by the Russians were shipped out to horrendously hardcore Gulags in Siberia, where they spent twelve hours a day eating disgusting borscht and gruel, mining snow from ice caves with pickaxes like the Dwarves in Snow White.  

However, once Germany double-crossed the Soviets and started bludgeoning the Red Army, Josef Stalin had a change of heart and decided to let captured Polish POWs out of prison so they could help fight for the Allies.  

Since the Poles weren't too keen on fighting on behalf of the Russians who had oppressed and imprisoned them, they decided to serve under the British instead. In 1943, a large number of these men were put on trains and sent to Iran, where they became the Polish Second Army Corps commanded by General Wladyslaw Anders. Their first mission was to travel to Palestine, link up with the British 8th Army and assist in the Allied invasion of Italy. 

On their trip through Iran, the men of the Polish 22nd Transport Artillery Supply Company came across a young Iranian boy wandering through the desert carrying a large cloth sack. The men thought the boy looked tired and hungry, so they gave him some food. When the kid thanked them, the Poles asked what was in the bag. The boy opened it up and revealed a tiny, malnourished brown bear cub. Since the soldiers knew the little cub was in very poor health and needed attention quickly, they bought the bear from the kid, and fed it some condensed milk from a makeshift baby bottle. For the next several days, they nursed the bear back to health, giving it food, water, and a warm place to sleep.

On the long journey from Iran to Palestine, Voytek quickly became the unofficial mascot of the 22nd Company. The bear would sit around the campfire with the men, eating, drinking, and sleeping in tents with the rest of the soldiers. The bear loved smoking cigarettes, drank beer right out of the bottle like a regular infantryman, and got a kick out of wrestling and play-fighting with the other soldiers. Of course, he was the most powerful wrester in the entire company, thanks in part to the fact that he grew to be six feet tall, weighed roughly five hundred pounds, and could knock small trees over with a single swing of his massive, clawed paw.

Vojtek going a round of boxing with a comrade

He grew to be a part of the unit, improving the morale of men who had spent several years getting their asses kicked in slave labor camps, and was treated as though he were just another hard-drinkin’, hard-smoking’, hard-fightin’, hair-growin’ soldier in the Company.

When the unit marched out on a mission, Vojtek would stand up on his hind legs and march alongside them. When the motorized convoy was on the move, Vojtek sat in the passenger seat of one of the trucks, hanging his head out the window and shocking people walking down the street.

Vojtek also enjoyed taking hot baths for some reason. Over the summer in Palestine, he learned how to work the showers and you could pretty much always find him splashing around the bath house. Once, he entered the bath hut and came across a spy who had been planted to gather intelligence on the Allied camp. Vojtek growled, slapped the spy in the head, making him immediately surrender. The Soldier Bear was lauded as a hero for successfully capturing the enemy agent, who in turn was interrogated and gave up vital intelligence on enemy positions. 

When it was time to fight, Second Corps linked up with the British 8th Army and headed out to Italy were there was a major impasse in Allied progress. The problem, however, was that the British High Command did not allow any pets or animals in their camp. As an end run, the Polish Army formally enlisted Vojtek the Bear into their ranks. He was given the rank of Private, assigned a serial number, and from that point on was included in all official unit rosters. The Brits were like, “whatever chaps”, and didn't even bat an eye when Vojtek marched ashore with the rest of the 22nd Company.

The Poles’ Finest Hour of the war came in the incredibly bloody battle for Monte Cassino. By the time they arrived, the Germans were deeply entrenched in the hilltop monastery, and three previous Allied assaults on the position had all proved more fruitless than a  Florida orange tree in the middle of Antarctica.

The campaign was proving to be one of the bloodiest battles of the Western Front, and the Poles were brought in to make the final push to capture the fortress. During the fighting, Vojtek the Hero Bear actually hand-carried boxes of ammunition, some weighing in at over 100 pounds, from supply trucks to artillery positions on the front lines. He worked tirelessly, day and night, bringing supplies to his friends who were bravely battling the Nazis. He never rested, never dropped a single artillery shell, and never showed any fear despite his position being under constant enemy fire and heavy shelling.

Insignia of the 22nd Artillery
His actions were so inspiring to his fellow soldiers that after the battle the official insignia of the 22nd Artillery was changed to a picture of Vojtek carrying an armful of howitzer ammunition. In the same vein, you have to assume that it was pretty demoralizing to the Germans to see that the Poles had a giant brown bear fighting on their side.

Thanks to the heavy shelling by their artillery, the Polish forces broke through the Nazi defenses and captured Monte Cassino. Vojtek and his comrades would go on to fight the Germans across the Italian peninsula, breaking through the enemy lines and forcing the Krauts out of Italy for good.

After the war, some elements of the Polish Army, including Vojtek, were reassigned to Scotland, since Poland was under USSR control, and many Polish soldiers did not like the prospect of living in a Soviet-run police state. Vojtek lived out the rest of his days in the Edinburgh Zoo, where he passed away in 1963 at the age of 22. It was said that he always perked up when he heard the Polish language spoken by zoo guests, and during his life in there he was always being visited by his old friends from the Polish Army – some of whom would throw cigarettes down into his open arms, some of whom would even jump into the bear enclosure and wrestle with him for old time's sake.

The idea of a Nazi-fighting bear is so awesome that you'd think it was something out of a bizarre cartoon or a Sci-Fi Channel original movie. It’s the sort of thing that, even with all of the historical evidence, seems too weird to be true. The bear was a hero of World War II, and there are statues of him and plaques memorializing his brave service in Poland, Edinburgh, the Imperial War Museum in London, and the Canadian War Museum as well.

Monday, March 03, 2014

No Appeasement

Poland's Prime Minister Donald Tusk believes it is essential to prevent Russia's seizure of Crimea to expand into a wider regional conflict.

Tusk said, "History shows - although I don't want to use too many historical comparisons - that those who appease all the time in order to preserve peace usually only buy a little bit of time."

Poland shares a border with Ukraine and large parts of the of the country were Polish before World War Two. Warsaw's foreign policy is driven by a fear of its former overlord Russia pushing west into Ukraine and threatening Poland's own borders.

Poland played an important role in brokering the deal that ended violent conflicts between pro-Europe protesters and the government of President Viktor Yanukovich, a Russian ally, and that led eventually Yanukovich's ouster.

Playing with the Devil

Poland’s foreign minister visited Tehran three months after Iran signed an interim nuclear deal in Geneva with the international community . 

Although Poland is not involved in the negotiations of the P5+1 world powers with Tehran, it is obliged to follow the sanctions imposed by the EU.

“Iran is an important partner for us. We hope that Tehran will find the way to convince the world that its nuclear program serves peaceful purposes and that the final agreement will be signed,” said Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski after meeting his Iranian counterpart.

 “We are happy with our partnership with Poland, but much more can be done,” said Sikorski's Iranian counterpart.

The two ministers agreed to boost bilateral economic cooperation, mainly in the realms of pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals and the food industry. There are many parts of the economy which are not affected by the international sanctions, and Poland wants to take advantage of this loophole.

Detailed plans for future bilateral cooperation are not yet on the table. But the visit of the Polish foreign minister was an effort to put out feelers in advance of the trip here next month of the Polish deputy prime minister for the economy, Janusz Piechocinski, with a group of businessmen.

Foreign Minister Sikorski also came with more than 20 business leaders, but their meetings in Tehran were canceled after cutting short their visit due to the turmoil in Ukraine.

Cooperation also exists between Poland and Iran in the academic arena. The Polish Institute of International Affairs – a Warsaw-based think tank – has signed an agreement with Iran's Institute for Political and International Studies, which is closely connected to the Iranian government. The agreement includes exchanges of academics and other experts, and a Polish-Iranian round-table that will be held at least once a year.

“This is the sign that barriers are breaking down between two countries and of the openness of Polish academics to dialogue with our Iranian colleagues,” Marcin Zaborowski, CEO of the Polish institute, who signed the agreement in Tehran.

Poland was not directly involved in imposing sanctions on Tehran over the last decade and thus not publicly attacked by Iranian authorities. 

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Russia Has Talent

High Trade with Germany

Poland has once again become Berlin's main business partner in Eastern Europe, while trade between Germany and Russia has decreased considerably.

In the last three years Russia's growth rate has dipped steadily along with the value of the ruble and this is increasingly having an impact on trade between the two countries.

Last year Poland eclipsed the 76.5 billion euros trade with Russia by nearly two billion marking a 4% increase year to year.

Economic experts do not foresee a trend reversal as the Russian economy continues to have long term problems.