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SOME PLAIN SPEAKING IN POLAND

Poles must usually line up for taxis. They must always line up for meat. And often they get neither. Many cabbies ignore the designated ranks where the queues resignedly wait. They prefer to rove by the big hotels or in other areas where foreigners likely to pay in hard currency can be picked up.

But the long, or vain, wait for a taxi is a mild hardship compared with the persistent shortage of meat and other major food items. Such shortages probably burden at least 3 out of 4 Polish families.

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An Easter police swoop on traders -- the second shakedown in the last few months -- highlighted the average Pole's most bitter complaint more than anything said at the ruling Communist Party's recent congress.

To the outsider, it seems to explain far more than anything else (even politics) the almost ubiquitous public mood of "agin the government" that -- whatever the endeavors of a regime that came in on a wave of popular relief a decade ago -- is the hallmark of the Polish scene today.

The frustrations that toppled a government in 1970 and have twice presented uncomfortable challenges to its successor are today not very far below the surface.

In the decade since the Gierek regime came to power, the country has received inputs of Western credit, equipment, and technology to the tune of some $18 billion. The outlay is still far from showing the desired results -- or from making people happy.

Official claims at the February congress that industry was being modernized and expanded are tempered by admissions that many products are still of inferior quality, many workers do their jobs carelessly, and the development of competitive exports continues to lag.

Party leader Edward Gierek said that the only way to grapple with such obstacles to progress was to "streamline" production, increase efficiency, and tighten discipline. He made no modifications to overall economic strategy and no concession to political or economic "liberals" who have long pressed for flexible planning reforms.

It is too early to judge the new government that was formed shortly after the congress. But figures that have come out since the congress indicate that last year's stagnation continues. From January through March industry fell short of export targets, even though they were only slightly higher than those for the same three months of 1979, when the economy was paralyzed by disastrous winter weather.

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"The essential imports and credits [from the West] that must be paid for do not permit such delay," the party newspaper Trybuna Ludu commented tersely.

The weekly Polityka, which has long campaigned for economic reform, quickly returned to its argument that the planning system is to blame for failure to utilize the new technology fully. State planners, it wrote April 5, still assess production by quantity, on the basis that the more produced, the better, even though the goods may not be of export quality and vast quantities of raw materials may have been wasted in their manufacture.

"What is wanted," Polityka said, "is a more sophisticated attitude toward new technology and inventiveness. Enterprise managers are afraid of taking up new and modernized things because they don't want to risk falling behind with targets that can deprive them as well as the workers of their state bonuses."

The writer also brought out that 1 in 3 of the numerous Western licenses and systems Poland purchased during the 1970s has not yet been put in use; and of those applied several years ago, 25 percent have not achieved expected production quotas, to say nothing of better quality in the products themselves. There is more and more plain speaking in Poland these days from "voices from below," coming from around the country and closer than the theorists and economists are to the grass roots and to the real, more personal issues at the core of the country's problems.

There was scarcely any criticism of policy as such at the February congress, least of all as presented by the party leader. Mr. Gierek's stature was, if anything, enhanced, even though his administration is generally regarded with skepticism.

But one after another, speakers cited dire mismanagement in public affairs and the pervasive failure of state officials to protect the consumer and public interest at large.

There were allusions not only to officials' abuse of powers and disregard of central-government policies but also to corruption and extravagant life styles inconsistent with the austerity to which the nation as a whole was summoned.

One regional secretary drew applause when he remarked dryly that the problems of Poland might be better solved "if the basic principles in the ruling of the country and our nation are observed."

The Easter-week raids illustrated one of the subjects most troubling to the constituents of such delegates.

The police checked on 22,000 food stores and restaurants in Warsaw and other big urban centers.

One in 4 was found to be cheating the customer in weight, price, quality, or all three and -- what makes an ordinary Polish family hopping mad -- to be keeping better-quality meat "under the counter" for customers able and willing to pay more.

Some 4,000 dishonest shop assistants and waiters were fined. But Poles say scornfully that such sanctions are not enough.

"They raided thousands of stores for the same things at Christmastime," an acquaintance remarked. "But the people who do it rake in such profits that fines don't worry them in the least."

To some extent the government itself encourages this tendency to favor the bigger "official" prices -- i.e., more realistic and often twice the normal retail figure -- for meat sold through new, state-owned butcher shops. These, in fact, now sell some 18 percent of public meat supplies.

The intent was to knock out the black market. But in effect it has meant permanent shortages in the ordinary stores to which most consumers are restricted by their lower incomes.

It is already admitted that this year's gap between supply and demand for meat and meat products will be as much as 25 percent -- even more than last year's 500,000-ton shortfall.

"The government," the acquaintance said, "still does not do enough to encourage the private sector [covering 80 percent of all arable land] to produce more. But what really is to blame is its distribution system and the inadequate controls, which permit so much corruption."

This year the government must make repayments on its Western debts amounting to $4 billion. Huge additional payments are due for grain and fodder imports -- including another half-billion dollars' worth from the United States this year -- forced upon it by calamitous harvests.

Onerous as this financial burden is, it is probably not the most pressing of those Mr. Gierek has said keep him awake at night. Nor are the dissidents, despite all the diverse activity of numerous groups claiming to speak for almost every social stratum. Often they seem as divided among themselves about what they want as they are at odds with government.

To many outside observers, Poland's most immediate problem is its uneasy public mood, with the seemingly never-to-end background of shortage, of government failure to carry greater credibility, or, specifically, at least to ensure an adequate and stable food supply for all.


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