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Country profile: Poland

By Catriona Davies and Eoghan Macguire
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Poland joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004
  • Famous Poles include Fredric Chopin, Marie Curie and Pope John Paul II
  • Poland will co-host the 2012 European Football Championships

From Monday September 12, CNN's Eye On takes you to Poland. Through interviews and in-depth coverage, get an up-close look at the country in an international context on TV and online.

(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 this period, including the vast majority of the country's large Jewish population. The capital Warsaw was virtually leveled.

Warsaw's changing skyline
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At the end of the war Poland became a communist state and a signatory to 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, although it did not adopt the Euro. The Zloty remains the Polish currency.

On YouTube: CNN gives Poland a new perspective

In Poland's first years of EU membership, between 800,000 and 900,000 Poles left every year to work in other -- mainly Western -- EU countries where wages were higher, a 2007 report from Poland's Institute of Public Affairs claimed.

According to research by Poland's Central Statistics Office in 2010 however, this tide of emigres has stemmed and an increasing number of Polish nationals have remained in the country since 2008.

Poland's is also the only economy in the European Union to avoid going into recession since the 2008 financial crisis.

In 2010 the country was hit by tragedy when President Leech 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.

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In the elections following Kaczynski's death, Bronislaw Komorowski was voted in as the country's president for a five year term.

Poland has a population of around 38.5 million people, more than 90% 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 and 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.

Some prominent Poles to have left their mark on the world 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, film makers Roman Polanski and Krzysztof Kieslowski, and Casimir Pulaski, a hero of the American revolution.

Poland will co-host the 2012 European Football Championships in conjunction with neighboring Ukraine. Stadia in the cities of Warsaw, Gdansk, Poznan and Wroclaw will host some15 of the tournaments 31 matches. The 53,000 seat Stadion Narodowy in Warsaw will host the opening game and one semi final.

 
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