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The Warsaw Voice » Other » March 4, 2009
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Chairs of Two Decades Handed Out
March 4, 2009 By Witold Żygulski   
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The Warsaw Voice held its annual awards ceremony at the Sofitel Victoria Hotel in Warsaw Feb. 26. This time we handed out two special Chair of Two Decades awards to mark the 20 years since Poland's political and economic transition began and the 20 years since the first issue of the Voice hit the streets.

The awards went to Lech Wałęsa and Leszek Balcerowicz, two icons of Poland's transition from communism to a market economy and figures who have had an enormous influence on the last 20 years of Polish history. Wałęsa was the first leader of the Solidarity trade union who went on to become the first democratically elected president of Poland after World War II. Balcerowicz was the key architect of the country's economic reforms based on a package of "shock therapy" measures designed to help the country move away from central planning.

Both Wałęsa and Balcerowicz won plaudits from the Voice earlier in the past as well. Wałęsa received our first ever Chair of the Year award in 1989, and Balcerowicz walked away with one a year later. Two decades later, the two politicians were honored again.

Voice editor-in-chief Andrzej Jonas paid tribute to the award winners, saying that "without them nothing of what we have seen in Poland over the past 20 years would have been possible." Jonas called the past two decades "one of the best periods in Polish history." He added that both Wałęsa and Balcerowicz have always prompted strong reactions, which "testifies to their stature" as political and economic leaders. Some people admire and love them, while others find them hard to stomach, Jonas said.

The 20 years of Polish transition coincide with the 20 years of The Warsaw Voice in print. The news magazine was founded when the historic Roundtable talks between Poland's former communist authorities and the democratic opposition got under way. These negotiations led to free elections, followed by the establishment of the country's first noncommunist government after World War II and the launch of political and economic reforms, notably the Balcerowicz Plan. A year later, Wałęsa was elected president of Poland.

"Without you, we wouldn't be here," said Jonas to the award winners, adding that the Voice's history has been closely linked with the history of Poland.

Collecting the Chair statuette-which, as in previous years, was designed and made by Prof. Piotr Gawron from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw-Wałęsa said he had no intention of giving a speech but only wanted to "extend a brief thank you." However, his political temperament soon took over and in a brave and sometimes funny way he commented on current world affairs. He appealed to the "generation of winners"-as he called those who helped Poland shake off communism-to live up to another challenge by fending off the current financial and economic crisis.

Wałęsa warned against giving in to panic and said that Poland's successful move from one system to another proves that it is always possible to find a solution to a problem. He added that the latest crisis has spawned many negative trends, including a return to narrow national interests and economic protectionism in Europe.

Balcerowicz said after collecting the award that his dreams of introducing a free market economy in Poland were often dismissed as a utopian theory under communism. "But sometimes pursuing a utopia can have a positive effect," he said.

Former deputy prime minister, finance minister and later head of the National Bank of Poland, Balcerowicz said that 1989 was a watershed for Poland. At that time, the country embarked on the road toward democratic capitalism, "the only system that passed the test wherever it was introduced." Today, he said, the main danger lies in giving in to populistic moods and slogans that fail to "remedy the problem, and which are worse than the disease itself," as he put it.

Balcerowicz firmly opposed attempts to compare the world's current economic problems with the Great Crisis of the 1930s. But he agreed with Wałęsa that these two periods have something in common-a growing temptation to return to economic protectionism, a policy that hampers globalization processes and economic growth. Counteracting this process is the number one priority for international leaders today, Balcerowicz said. In this context, he said special hopes could be placed in new U.S. President Barack Obama, who, according to Balcerowicz, should use his enormous popularity and charisma to defend the free market.

As every year, the awards event attracted many prominent politicians, businesspeople, diplomats, journalists and cultural leaders. Guests included Marek Borowski, former Sejm speaker, now leader of the Polish Social Democratic Party; Tomasz Nałęcz, former deputy Sejm speaker; Adam Daniel Rotfeld, former minister of foreign affairs; Ludwik Sobolewski, president of the Warsaw Stock Exchange; Henryka Bochniarz, head of the Polish Confederation of Private Employers; and Igor Chalupec, former CEO of fuel giant PKN Orlen.

The awards ceremony was made possible by a group of generous sponsors. These included Vattenfall and PKP Intercity as Gold Sponsors; Mercedes-Benz, Grupa Strategia, and Pirelli Pekao Real Estate as Silver Sponsors; and HSG Zander, Sofitel Luxury Hotels, Von Der Heyden Group, Agros Nova, Kompania Piwowarska, and Sixt Rent-a-Car as Supporting Sponsors. Gallo Family Vineyards provided wine for the guests, and Bols supplied more potent drinks.

During the Gala, Mercedes-Benz officially unveiled its latest new-generation E-Class model.
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