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Sanctions bite into Polish economy

Western sanctions imposed to protest martial law in Poland are squeezing a troubled economy.

The ports and the shipbuilding industry along the Baltic coast are particularly hard hit by the US-led sanctions.

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Admittedly, order books are full for two years ahead. But the Lenin shipyard and the port of Gdansk are suffering acutely from shortages of steel and other basic materials. Vital spare parts for equipment and technology bought in the hard-currency countries of the West are also seriously depleted.

Grain elevators that used to work around the clock are idle two and three days a week.

Agriculture has also been hit hard.

''A year ago this was one of the best chicken-raising areas in Poland based, of course, on American corn,'' says Edward Kijek, a senior official of the regional Communist Party Committee in a Monitor interview. ''Last year production was 51,000 tons, which is now lost and causing a serious gap in the food balance.''

But martial law has also had some positive effects.

Not only has the discipline of martial law arrested the slide in productivity; in some instances it has even spurred an increase.

Silesia, the major coal-producing area, has been setting new daily production records.

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Janusz Janiszewski, a hard-headed but buoyant man who speaks English fluently and who serves as the Port Authority's trade director, calls the dramatic upturn ''a real explosion.'' Polish coal exports reached an encouraging 5 million tons in the first quarter. They could well exceed 20 million tons for the year. This would be a major advance over 1981, but still only about half of what Poland shipped abroad annually in the 1970s when it was the world's No. 2 coal exporter.

A sharp rise in coal production and other minerals to some extent compensates the Baltic ports for the loss of the American grain trade.

Polish fishing vessels, barred from American waters, are returning to the Baltic and providing food for the depressed home market. Other Polish fishing vessels have moved to the South Pacific, where they are said to be trawling in cooperation with a Soviet fishing fleet. The Russians are also said to be giving the Poles fishing rights in the Barents Sea.

The effect of sanctions is to force Poles away from some established Western ties and into much greater dependence on trade with the Soviet Union.

''Last year,'' says Mr. Kijek, ''the USSR supplied over 40 percent of all Poland's imports and absorbed -- even in a bad year for Polish production -- more than 32 percent of all its exports. That upward trend is certainly going to continue.''

While Soviet assistance now becomes more imperative, it has not been sufficient to turn around the ailing Polish economy.

Polish foreign trade dropped 20 percent overall in 1981, according to the latest statistics. The decline with capitalist countries was 25 to 30 percent. Poland's miniscule share in world trade - .7 percent - was its lowest since World War I.

The decline had already begun before the industrial crisis of summer 1980 had even more disastrous effects on the economy.

One of the crucial uphill battles for the Polish economy is being fought in the big ports and shipyards along this Baltic shore.

This area vividly underlines the problems facing the nation. Only a few years ago Gdansk was one of the most modern harbors and commercial facilities in Europe, handling as much as 28 millions tons of cargo a year. Last year - the year of nationwide strikes and conflicts - port traffic in Poland slumped to 12 million tons.

Officials hope to boost Gdansk's activity to 14 million tons this year. Yet that would be only half the 1978 record. But officials are optimistic the port is on the mend. And much of that optimism is based on the realization that martial law, which has been in force for almost four months, has introduced some degree of order to the industrial chaos prevalent since 1980.

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