Finance Minister of the Year 1998: Leszek Balcerowicz
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Finance Minister of the Year 1998: Leszek Balcerowicz

Long, long ago, when half the world was ruled by men who still believed in state control of the economy, Poland took the gamble of letting the market decide the price of goods. That dose of shock therapy in 1989 became a model for eastern Europe. The man who imposed it became one of the region's leading economic thinkers. Now he is back at the helm of the Polish economy. James Rutter talks to Leszek Balcerowicz about history, movies and the trials of coalition government.

Highly commended: Pedro Malan, Finance minister, Brazil Highly commended: Yannos Papantoniou, Finance minister, Greece

The return of Poland's middle-distance champion

More than 30 years ago Leszek Balcerowicz was the junior 800 metres champion of Poland. He may now be 51 and a year into his second term as Polish finance minister, but it is still easy to see why he was a natural runner over a distance requiring both the raw speed of a sprinter and long-distance stamina.

In 1989 Balcerowicz left the cosseted atmosphere of academia to become Poland's first post-communist finance minister. It was the speed with which he moved to tackle the country's hyperinflation and implement sweeping reforms that gained him the plaudits of international economists. His uncompromising reform package was dubbed "shock therapy", and today's thriving Polish economy remains a testament to its success.

Now, after seven years of robust economic growth, speed is no longer of the essence. What Balcerowicz has unveiled this time round is what he calls a "medium-term strategy" which should see Poland safely gathered into the European Union fold and, he hopes, installed as "a healthy tiger [economy] for years to come".

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