The cigarette was the best -- almost the only -- currency in defeated Germany just after the war. Thirty-six years later the same thing is happening here in Poland.
"No one wants money," a young member of Solidarity who is also a Communist Party reformer observed bitterly to this writer. "You get most things these days -- food or services -- in exchange for vodka or cigarettes, not otherwise."
Any Pole confirms it. Craftsmen -- electricians, plumbers, carpenters, TV repairmen -- who used to go to a house to do jobs costing a mere 50 or 100 zlotys will no longer do so. Now they insist on payment in tobacco or alcohol -- also high priced and rationed.
Food is also available for this "currency." Eggs cost 7.5 zlotys each (about 20 cents at the artificial tourist rate). On the free market where they are more abundant and of better quality, they are 15 zlotys. But for two or three packets of cheap cigarettes, you can buy a dozen.
This is the sorry background to an economy that is staggering unhindered toward bankruptcy. The problems are daunting, and that may explain why -- except for a handful who did not get much of a hearing -- Solidarity delegates chose to wage "war" against the government over this month's doubling of cigarette priceS.
Government ministers were reduced to explaining to them that the price hike was due, at least in part, to cigarettes having become almost a national currency.
One has to understand the human factor in all this. "Putting up the prices was economically sound enough," the party member said. "But the way in which the government did it has nullified its whole purpose."
No matter how justified the process of letting off steam against the government might seem, Solidarity delegates wasted long hours wrangling over resolution after resolution on subjects that had nothing to do with the stark realities of the present economic situation.