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The Soviet hand in Poland

POLAND, that Western-oriented country held hostage under communist rule, is a sullen place this winter. A projected series of price increases loom. Rents and heating costs may soon double or treble. Food prices will be twice as much as at present.

In light of all this, there is a rush on food stores, and there is hoarding. Shelves are half empty. There is no sugar.

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The price increases planned are intended as a drastic shake-up of the economy, designed to reform it and improve it. Supply and demand are to be brought into sync. Then the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank might be persuaded to give critical relief on Poland's $36 billion debt.

Poles are going to vote on all this Nov. 29, and the tough economic measures have been gift-wrapped in a package promising some democratization. There may be more-open newspapers, freer association, maybe even local elections with some non-party, but approved, candidates.

All this is a risky business. Previous price increases in 1970, 1976, and 1980 touched off worker uprisings; all were suppressed.

But now Poland is living in the age of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) in the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, has just written a new book about it in which he says economic reform calls for ``extensive democratization of management, and the overall activization of the human factor.'' He also suggests there is more than one way to skin a socialist cat. In other words, the Poles have been given a green light by Moscow to loosen up on the economic front, even if this means short-term hardship.

But if perestroika means loosening up, if the situation were to get out of hand glasnost would be put to a severe test. Would Poles be allowed to demonstrate? To challenge the ruling regime? Or would the threat of Soviet intervention become a reality?

The tragedy of Poland is that it is a European country, that all its instincts are Western, but that it is held on a leash that runs to Moscow.

Poles are staunchly pro-American. They have a great affection for President Reagan. One cabdriver told a visiting Council on Foreign Relations group recently that in a free election Ronald Reagan would be chosen president of Poland. ``Supposing he ran against the Pope?'' one of the party asked. (The Pope is Polish and Poland is heavily Roman Catholic). ``It would be close,'' was the response.

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Ever since the Soviets gained control of Eastern Europe after World War II they have tried to implant a communist system on strategically situated Poland. The Poles have consistently bridled. Even Stalin is supposed to have said that trying to impose communism on Poland was like trying to saddle up a cow.

But still, a Polish communist regime holds uneasy power; though it is despised by many Poles, the Soviets clearly are not going to let it be toppled. Mr. Gorbachev's glasnost does not go that far, and if it threatens to, there are dour and skeptical conservative forces in Moscow which will not permit it.

So the critical question is: How much economic experimentation can be allowed without loosening political control beyond the line drawn by the Soviets?

As the Council on Foreign Relations group reported, ``Genuinely democratic governance ... is not on the horizon. There will be no free elections to decide who will govern. Lech Walesa is not about to replace Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski. The Soviets will not permit it.''

But within these constrictions, Gorbachev is permitting experimentation. If deftly handled, this may, as Adam Michnik, one of Solidarity's best-known writers, puts it, allow Poles ``to live freely in a country that is not free.''

It is an intriguing test for Poland and Gorbachev.


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