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Country profile: Poland

By Catriona Davies, for CNN
People walk across Zamkowy Square at the entrance to the city's Old Town, Warsaw, Poland.
People walk across Zamkowy Square at the entrance to the city's Old Town, Warsaw, Poland.
  • Poland joined the EU in 2004 and NATO in 1999
  • Six million Poles were killed during the Second World War
  • Famous Poles include Frederic Chopin, John Paul II and Marie Curie

CNN's new series i-List takes you to a different country each month. In June, we visit Poland focusing on changes shaping the country's economy, culture and its social fabric.

(CNN) -- In 1989, Poland became the first member of the Soviet bloc to establish a non-Communist government.

Since then it has run headlong into the western world with one of the fastest-growing economies in Europe. The CIA World Factbook calls Poland a regional success story.

Historically, however, it has often been a country in turmoil. Poland declared independence in 1918 after the First World War following more than 120 years divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria.

Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939 --- followed by an attack by Soviet forces two weeks later --- sparked the Second World War.

Six million Poles died during the war, including the vast majority of the large Jewish population. Its capital Warsaw was virtually leveled.

At the end of the war Poland became a communist state and a member of the Warsaw Pact.

In 1989 talks between the communist authorities and Solidarity opposition movement paved the way for democracy, free elections and a free market economy, according to the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Poland joined NATO in 1999, and in 2004 became part of the European Union.

Poland was hit by tragedy in April this year when President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others, including many of the country's top leaders, died in a plane crash in Russia. They were on their way to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Russian massacre of Polish prisoners of war in the village of Katyn. The head of Parliament,

Bronislaw Komorowski has been acting President since Kaczynski's death. Komorowski and Kaczynski's twin brother are candidates to succeed the late president in the July 4 election.

Poland has a population of around 38.5 million people, more than 90 perecent of whom are Roman Catholic.

The capital Warsaw, also the administrative and commercial center, is home to 1.6 million people. Its Old Town was painstakingly reconstructed after the Second World War.

Warsaw's Old Town is now one of 13 Polish sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Others include Auschwitz Birkenau, the largest and most notorious Nazi concentration and extermination camp ; the historic center of Krakow; and the Wieliczka Salt Mine, dating back to the 13th century and now containing artworks, altars and statues carved in salt.

Poland is a mainly flat country bordered by Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, and the Baltic Sea.

Its wildlife includes wolves, lynx, otters and European bison and there are 23 national parks.

This year, Poland celebrates the 200th anniversary of the birth of composer Frederic Chopin. Other famous Poles include Pope John Paul II, Marie Curie (born Maria Sklodowska), the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who researched radioactivity and its use in cancer treatment, the 16th century physicist Copernicus, and Casimir Pulaski, a hero of the American revolution. .