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Poland tries novel approach on price rises

The leaders of Poland, carefully and anxiously, are raising food prices again. Three of Poland's previous postwar governments were toppled by upheavals triggered by public reaction to food price increases. But this time, the Communist regime is trying some new tactics.

In a market steered for decades by politics rather than strict economics, the latest proposed price rises can be presented as essential to necessary economic reform. Without a more balanced, stable market there can be neither recovery from the present crisis nor any certainty there won't be more upheaval in the future.

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But this time, at least, Poles have been given advance warning of the Jan. 1 price rises. And in a bid to secure their peaceful cooperation, the government is giving Poles six weeks for public consultation and some choice in how the new price structure is adjusted.

The variants offered seem to boil down to a choice between forging into a grin-and-bear-it, pay-more-now-but-benefit-later process, or having the dosage spread over a longer (but not necessarily easier) period. A crisis may be sidestepped for two reasons: One is that Poles are weary from three years of domestic conflict. The other is the way the government regained its balance after mishandling its first announcement of price rises.

Polish weariness was already evident when martial law was eased this summer. And it has become apparent again recently, as the underground's call for a month of continuous protest in November over the remaining political prisoners met with little support.

Public reaction to the first official disclosure a few weeks ago that food prices were increasing - about 10 to 15 percent overall, with butter up 40 percent and chicken up 70 percent - was angry enough.

But more than the prospect of yet another price rise, what fueled Poles' anger was the brusque, uncaring way in which the news was broken. That anger was strong enough to prompt the government to apologize quickly to the public and fire the senior officials responsible for mishandling so sensitive a public issue.

This, for a start, was something new in official attitude toward public opinion. One lesson of the last three decades had been learned, finally. This time there is to be at least a prospect of deference to a public choice over the timing and scale - not of the price rise itself, but of the accompanying wage increases.

The consultation started at the weekend, with Polish television screening people and their comments. Telephone numbers were given and people nationwide were asked to phone in. The outcome remains to be seen. This writer's hunch is that it should be enough to defuse a situation that otherwise could be politically difficult, especially with the emotive December commemorations of the 1970 riots only a few weeks away.

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There is, furthermore, no sign of any public heed to new underground calls to protest the price rises with strikes. But avoiding these difficulties alone will not solve Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's key problem.

''He is really trying to build public confidence,'' an experienced Western observer in Warsaw remarked. ''He is doing his best, I would say. But whether he can succeed is still the overriding $64 question.''

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