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Polish government braces for winter of discontent from its hard-hit people

While most of Europe, including some of the East bloc, is talking about nuclear missiles, Warsaw is almost another world. Here Poles talk mostly about the threat of new food prices.

Food prices are to rise an average of 15 percent - and some essential items much more - as of Jan. 1.

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That's not news. Poles have known about their New Year's ''gift'' for two months now.

It is rare indeed to encounter anyone who will start off on any topic but food prices when you ask, ''Well, how are things?'' Just now, the increases cast a pall over the Polish scene as gray and discouraging as the first overcast skies and bitter winds of winter.

And it is going to be a hard winter. How hard is suggested by the government's reactivation of the military inspection teams set up in 1981 some months before martial law was declared. The teams check up on maldistribution and waste by state agencies and enterprises.

The government says this was prompted largely by the worsening international situation, which makes it necessary to test and ensure the country's general defense preparedness.

While this may be a civil defense exercise, the government is obviously anxious about public order and discipline. It wants to have firm control should conditions deteriorate through the winter and social unrest escalate to the level it was before or during martial law.

''Things here still have to get worse before they can get better,'' the official apologists say. But from any government viewpoint the most disturbing thought must be that so few ordinary folk show any confidence that things will get better.

The initial announcement of the price rises was badly bungled. It roused feeling almost equaling that which brought down the previous government.

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This time, however, the government apologized, sacked the ministers responsible for the announcement, and opened the news media and public platforms to popular consultation of how price increases might be introduced to take a smaller bite out of meager Polish purses.

''Consultation'' is continuing - but with limited effect. Public reaction has been an overwhelming demand to call off the price hikes.

But the increases are part of the economic reform that depends first and foremost on getting the economy to run on an orderly market basis. Without that, there can be no reform. For the consumer, this is a brutal fact.

''It is economic necessity. The government has no freedom of maneuver,'' a government spokesman said at a news conference this week.

So consultation is only a voice in how to make unsavory reforms less painful.

At best, the lowest-paid workers and the pensioners - the nearly 2 million Poles who the government concedes live below the subsistence level - can hope for a little more compensation.

Stores do have more goods now - but too often at prices most people cannot afford. A pair of warm socks for winter costs 1,500 zlotys (almost $16) - or more than a tenth of the average monthly wage (price compensations included).

''Whenever goods of reasonable price and quality appear, they are snapped up in a flash,'' a woman friend says.

There are a few acute shortages of essential foodstuffs, cooking oil and tea, for example. And with 650,000 fewer cattle and 4 million fewer pigs in Poland this year than last, the quality and quantity of meat have inevitably dropped.

So far there has been no response to underground calls for direct protest action against the new prices. The authorities dismiss the underground as no longer politically significant, but clearly do not regard it as a totally spent force.

For the moment, the Poles are unconcerned with anything but the day-to-day grind of faring as well as conditions allow.

No East European postwar government has had to function with so little active support or confidence from the bulk of its people. How long that can continue, if this government cannot secure some meaningful upturn in the economy, must be a matter of anxious conjecture.

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