It has been a year and a half now since the then coalition government of the newly assembled right-wing Electoral Action Solidarity and its more centrist ally, Freedom Union, introduced four extensive state reforms. These reforms encompassed a complete change in the financing of health care, the introduction of new pension and education systems, and - last but not least - enforcing new administrative divisions of Poland.
"Enforcing" is a good word to describe the way in which the administrative reform was introduced, with all the political games that took place throughout its preparation and implementation. In short, the new administrative system did away with Poland's old administration system, which divided the country into 49 voivod-ships, and those, in turn into several hundred gminy (communities). Since 1999, there have been only 16 huge voivod-ships and a powiat, that is to say that a new step in the administrative ladder has been added between gminy and voivod-ships.
Winners and losers
Very many smaller towns eagerly awaited the reform, as they expected their status to be raised to a rank of a powiat town, which, according to the reform's assumptions, were to be a key element in the new administration, providing people with previously absent bureaucratic services. However, the question of which of the 49 voivod-ship cities are to be deprived of their status, became the subject of a heated debate as not all of them were ready to give up this prestigious and lucrative position.
Lobbyists forced the government, however, to expand the number of new voivod-ships from the initial 12 to 16. However, that was the highest figure that could be allowed, as any more would have clashed with the main assumption of the whole reform: to create big regions that were financially strong enough to become independent economic entities (of course, within the limits of the state).
The new cities with voivod-ship status are: Białystok, Warsaw, Szczecin, Gdańsk, Lublin, Kraków, Rzeszów, Katowice, Opole, Łódź, Kielce, Olsztyn, Wrocław, Poznań, Gorzów Wielkopolski and Zielona Góra, Bydgoszcz and Toruń (the last two pairs are joint capitals of a voivod-ship - as a result of unsolvable rows and the high ambitions of local politicians). The rest - 33 cities and towns - form a downgraded group of former voivod-ship centers, reduced now to powiat status.
Such downgrading meant, for example, that Kalisz became equal overnight to its local neighbor, and rival, Ostrów Wielkopolski. The inhabitants of the former, as would be expected, were not at all happy at this result. A more vivid example of the injustices done to former voivod-ship cities is Czéstochowa, a city of over 250,000 people with strong tourism and an industrial center, which now only enjoys powiat status.
In order to placate those city authorities that have been downgraded,the government undertook a special program to assure them money for their future development. The news of this program was welcomed with enthusiasm by the former voivod-ship cities, which needed something to make up for the loss of their privileged position that once drew investors' money to them.
In the new situation, with investors now changing their business routes to new voivod-ship centers, the words of Prime Minister Jerzy Bużek that every downgraded city would conduct - with the help of the program's money - its own, unique, development projects sounded very promising.
However, the government program,
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Even though the sum later grew to USD 30,000 as some cities withdrew from the program and others' development projects were rejected, it became apparent that the program was totally insufficient.
Besides, it turned out that the phrase "development project" was interpreted unrealistically in many of the former voivod-ship cities. Clearly some did not know about the very limited government resources on offer when they demanded millions of dollars for projects that raised doubts about whether they were genuine attempts at upgrading the cities or blatant opportunism: one of the cities wanted to build an airport, while another came up with the idea of a "European Integration and Education Center" which was to spread the good news about the European Union among the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Such approaches only showed that many of these authorities simply did not know what was best for their own cities: they preferred glamorous yet unrealistic undertakings. This was a short-sighted policy, especially when in a few years time, these same cities will be competing for millions of euros from the EU's structural funds. The EU will be interested only in realisable projects that will be carried out by competent people not by schemes put forward by dreamers.
A recent report about the situation of the former
The problem with the former voivod-ship cities is two-fold: the government, despite announcing Dialogue and Development with gusto, did not live up to expectations. City authorities, on the other hand, have to stop depending on the helping hand of Warsaw, as it cannot be the only means of future development. After all, these reforms were not introduced solely to change the administrative map of Poland but first and foremost to encourage local initiative.
Wojtek Kość, 3 July 2000
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