WARSAW and GDANSK, Poland - The Polish credit union movement, started in the early 1990s, has grown partially because of the support of the top officials and partially because it offers financial opportunities the country's banks do not.
Lech Kaczyski, the former mayor of Warsaw who was elected president in December 2005, is a long-time believer in credit unions. His support goes back to the late 1980s when Kaczyski's and Grzegorz Bierecki both reported to the President Lech Walesa, Solidarity Party leader and Noble Laureate.
Bierecki, on a fact-finding trip to the United States to look at financial institutions, found banks unhelpful, but stumbled onto credit unions. He took the idea back to his country and a new financial sector was reborn with Kaczyski and Walesa's backing. Credit unions had existed prior to the communist take over of their country, but they were not able to operate under that regime.
The first credit union was opened for the ship workers in Gdansk, where the Solidarity Movement that helped overthrow the communist regime began.
Bierecki is now President of the National Association of Cooperative Savings and Credit Unions, the Foundation of Polish Credit Unions, chairman of the boards for the Savings and Credit Union Mutual Insurance Society and Credit Union Life Insurance Society. He is also active on the international scene as the secretary of the World Council of Credit Union's board.
Seventy-five credit unions are now up and running, according to Pawel Grzesik, Warsaw representative and spokesperson for NACSCU. He says it is the largest single network of financial services in Poland with their 1,567 branches. Credit union members have PLN5.3 (US$1.7) billion in assets as of December 2005. Credit unions are currently self-audited, but the leaders and lawyers of the movement are examining new legislation that would bring banks, the insurance sector and credit unions under one regulator. It "would most likely become part of the new law on cooperatives which would be proposed to the parliament by the president of the Republic. Our main partner there would be obviously, the presidential chancellery and the parliamentary commissions," Grzesic said. Banks are not happy and the future is unclear. "It is yet to be seen whether the pressure of banks would be effective enough to include credit unions in the list of institutions supervised by the future regulator," Grzesik said. So far credit unions aren't included in the list. However, credit unions are rapidly becoming a major financial force in the country with or without the legislation. -