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Polish tractor plant plows new Russian furrow as Western linkup fails

Warsaw's big Ursus tractor plant is once again hitching its fortunes to the giant Soviet tractor concern at Minsk.

The reinstatement of those ties, abandoned in the 1970s as the leadership of Edward Gierek turned to Western licenses and investment, may be a sign of the times, for its links with the Western multinational Massey-Ferguson never lived up to expectations.

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The Ursus plant was never able to produce enough tractors, let alone produce tractors designed to meet the needs of the peasants, whose small plots account for 80 percent of the country's output. Its problems were complicated by the worker unrest that began building in 1976 and finally, in August 1980, spawned the present economic debacle.

The problems at Ursus point up the difference between the hope behind closer business ties to the West and the reality of internal economic problems.

Under Mr. Gierek, investment policy took an unprecedented turn, for an East European state, toward the West.

It went far beyond anything attempted even by Hungary, the only East-bloc nation to persist with open, market-minded economic reform after such reforms were blocked by the Russians in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The Polish plan was based on heavy borrowing from the West to buy Western technology, and was intended to establish new factories that would merrily turn out goods for export. Sale of those products in Western markets was expected to pay the bill when the foreign loans fell due.

It did not work out that way. Poland was depending first and foremost on producing high-quality, competitive goods. But as the work force became more and more unresponsive after 1976, it simply couldn't pull it off.

Instead, debt to the West rocketed to its present $26 billion-to-$27 billion range, more than 40 percent of the East Europe's total bill with the West.

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As the Polish crisis was building up, Eastern Europe as a whole sustained two major blows.

* A downturn in Soviet ''protection'' in oil prices and availability. Russia's own needs, both at home and in export for hard currency, forced it to cut allotments to bloc allies by 10 percent. The price remains below the world market price but is much higher than the East Europeans had paid during the three previous decades.

* The effects of the near-collapse of Poland's economy and hard-currency situation. These meant serious consequences (through Polish trade defaults) for neighboring countries' own growth prospects and new strains on energy and raw material resources.

Only East Germany has dared to set a faster growth in net material product for 1981-85 than in 1976-80. It is still planning lower rates in industry and agriculture.

Only Hungary and the Soviet Union are aiming for higher growth rates in gross industrial output. Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, along with East Germany, are all reconciled to slower industrial growth than under the previous plan.

Last year, Romania emerged as the bloc's second big problem. The fruits of adventurous borrowing appeared later there than in Poland. This was in part because the Ceausescu leadership was treated almost as a ''favorite son'' by the West because of its maverick attitudes within the Soviet bloc. But more important, President Ceausescu wielded a hard line internally, and labor and popular protest were effectively restrained.

Then Romania's debts to the West finally topped $10 billion, and the Polish situation was making Western governments and banks leery of putting more money into another bottomless pocket, with ability to repay just as dubious.

Now Romania's economic troubles are almost as serious as Poland's. The United States is pressuring for repayment, and the International Monetary Fund has suspended an option on massive drawing of credits.

Under such growing economic difficulties, Romania has shown signs for several years of a more accommodating relationship with Moscow.

It may conceivably have no option but to move further in that direction, just as official Poland is reconciling itself to Western sanctions as a warning that it allowed itself to become too dependent on the West and must, therefore, shift its orientations accordingly.

Poland's tractor palnt decision is a case in point. Agriculture is vital to any economic revival, and the private sector must have priority in the means of production.

But this can be done only if mismanaged projects like Ursus are made to produce as promised. In recent years, visitors to the plant have seen thousands of tractors ready for the fields - but they had no tires. Throughout Poland tractors were idled year after year for lack of spares.

The Ursus management is apparently looking to the Soviet plant at Minsk to meet such needs.

It may be easier to make such adjustments in agricultural machinery than in industries where Poland's requirements can really be met only by supplies and new technology from the Western sources of the initial infrastructure.

Assistance from Comecon trading partners has been stepped up considerably since the Dec. 13 imposition of martial law. But, it is asked, can the assistance overcome all the deficiencies, and do it quickly enough?

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