For Poland, Sun Rises in West

From Tina Turner to NATO, many Poles see only America the beautiful

To say that Poland today is "looking West" is a vast understatement. For the average Polish citizen, Western Europe is attractive - and the United States seems to be the promised land.

With US rock music blaring in cafes and train stations, with the hope of NATO membership by century's end, with real economic growth of 6 percent due in part to US economist Jeffrey Sachs's 1992 "shock therapy" approach, and with American flags in abundance, Poles are earnest to pick up Western, if not American, styles and habits.

Tina Turner and Michael Jackson may not be "hot" in the US now. But they are front-page news here, competing with the latest moves of Russian national security chief Gen. Alexander Lebed. When Ms. Turner played Warsaw last month, traffic was jammed from noon until 8 p.m. as Poles from across the country packed into the city.

When asked about American elections, Poles favor the candidate who will be least isolationist. As one member of the foreign ministry put it, "Dole or Clinton, it doesn't matter. Just as long as we get into NATO."

People in Warsaw pooh-pooh last year's election of socialist Alexander Kwasniewski as anything but a desire to go slower with market reforms. The young and articulate president comes across like a polished Western politician, and he reminds the country that when Poland enters the European Union it will be the group's fourth-largest country.

Still, these are dreams of transition at a time when signs like Sony and Marriott gleam atop new skyscrapers, and Warsaw denizens brag their McDonalds restaurants now have drive-through service.

The Palace of Culture and Art, a "gift" from Joseph Stalin, still dominates the city center like some huge gray Lego monolith - a reminder of a not-too-distant past.

Prosperity may be improving, notably among a class of bilingual young people whose salaries are rising. But a strong undercurrent of anxiety exists that things could take a turn for the worse.

The worry is not so much that Poland, invaded 26 times in the past 300 years, will be re-invaded or that the 800 percent inflation of 1992-93 will quickly return. Rather, it is a concern that as the clock ticks on, the political elite of Europe and America will begin taking for granted the epoch-ending departure of the former Soviet Union from Poland - keeping Warsaw's desire to join the West on permanent hold and opening it to the psychological vagaries of existence half-in and half-out of Western Europe.

"We feel we have a window of opportunity to join the West and time is short," says Edward Krzemien, editor of Gazeta Wyborcza, a 500,000-circulation daily newspaper. "Many people here have already forgotten communism. We are worried that Europe will forget us. Memories are fading."

The economy is beginning to perform but in less than two decades some two-thirds of the current work force will be on pensions. "This is a time bomb," says one Polish economist. "We don't yet know how to deal with it." In addition, mining and heavy industry are in a slump, and the famous Gdansk shipyard is in debt to the tune of three times its value.

Warsaw now has an estimated 30,000 taxis; in 1993 it had 10,000. Unlike New York, in Warsaw you can find a cab when it rains; but drivers mutter that they are working harder for less.

Then there is the chaotic Eastern border of Poland, where Polish and Russian mafia battle for control of goods and services. Last year some 9 million border crossings were made - mainly Russians coming to markets like the huge bazaar located in a Warsaw sports stadium.

But last month some 300 Polish and Russian mafioso clashed at a train station border crossing. And concern over security is such that black-shirted private security guards are seen outside everything from restaurants to parking lots. According to police sources, some 12,000 security services employ nearly 300,000 Poles today, an "industry" that is still unregulated.

Still, the talk in Warsaw is not of problems. In fact, the biggest news recently was that Michael Jackson came to town.

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