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Professor a long way now from communism

Heard any good Polish jokes lately?

Neither have I. Not even Leno and Letterman are so cynical that they still feel free to take potshots at a country and its people whose determination to shuck off the yoke of the old Soviet Union -- via Lech Walesa's brief but world-shaking Solidarity movement -- helped lead the way toward the collapse of communism in eastern Europe.Most Utahns aren't aware of it, but we've had a Solidarity activist living among us for 12 years. Maria Wrotniak is an associate professor of economics and management at the Bill and Vieve Gore School of Business at Westminster College, an irony that would probably be lost on the Soviet puppets under whose rule she grew up in Lodz, Poland: A child of communism teaching capitalist economics to Americans.

True, Solidarity was outlawed in 1981 and Poland's economy took 11 years to recover from what economists term "The Deep Transformation Depression" that ensued when central planning was dropped in favor of a market economy. But Poland is luckier than most, she says. Ukraine, Georgia and to a lesser degree, Russia, are still trying to figure out how to be capitalists.

"The conventional wisdom says it's enough to abandon communism and central planning and the doors will heave open. But in many countries that simply hasn't happened. It's not enough to let everything loose, you must create markets in terms of well-defined laws and institutions," said Wrotniak in an interview last week.

Wrotniak (pronounced "rotneeack") first came to the United States in 1986, her passport sewn into her dress, having left her post at Lodz University. She was fleeing to escape threats against herself and her then 5-year-old son from the Polish secret police. Her husband (she has since divorced) had served as a visiting professor at the University of Utah in 1981 and a visit here had made her think this would be a good place to live.

Better than where her former Solidarity boss had been living for the previous two years, in prison for violating the martial law that had crushed the movement. The secret police had used threats against her son to try to get her to rat out her fellow activists. She refused and the police finally caved, issuing her a passport, literally, to freedom.

When she arrived at the airport with her son and two suitcases, there was a poorly orchestrated attempt by the police to stop her but it didn't work and she flew out from under the gray Polish skies never knowing if she would see her family and homeland again.

Once more, fate intervened. In December 1998 she was invited by the Polish government to return home, this time as a deputy minister, responsible for writing the country's economic program for the new millennium, titled "Strategy for Poland 2015." She returned to Utah last summer.

Wrotniak pushed to have Poland immediately jump into the "information revolution." Some asked, "How can we be an information society if we are not yet an industrial society?" Wrotniak argued that the Industrial Revolution took 70-80 years and coming late to the party didn't matter so much. But she expects the Information Revolution to be over in 10 years so "expediency counts."

To become a player in the information age, says Wrotniak, Poland must invest in three things: 1. Education 2. Research and development 3. Information technology, that is, software and new ways of processing information. The creation of computer hardware can be left to others.

Wrotniak was somewhat disappointed to find many of her former countrymen disillusioned with capitalism. "In some ways, life is better there, for some people at least, but a market economy has its dark side. Under communism, people were more or less equal. Now you have a greater dispersion of income with some doing very well and others not so well."

For example, she said, unemployment in Poland is now at a whopping 12 percent, compared to zero under the communists. "People complain of the uncertainty of jobs, health care . . . you have to take care of yourself now, but that's how democracy works, right?"

The minister position was to have lasted three years, but Wrotniak missed her son, who remained here during her sabbatical, and her friends and associates. She returned last June after six months at the ministerial position.

"I didn't realize it before, but this is home to me now, not Poland," said Wrotniak, who has become a naturalized American citizen.