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Grim Realism and Surreal Prices


IT sounds so exciting. Eight years after being banned, the independent trade union Solidarity is relegalized. The freest elections in 50 years are held. Then, climactically, the first noncommunist prime minister ever is installed in a Soviet-bloc country.

But surprisingly, nobody is dancing in the streets. Instead of radiating enthusiasm, the faces look sullen, resigned. The voices sound sullen, resigned, too. Few talk of a ``miracle.'' Few even bother to talk much about politics.

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``It's a paradox,'' admits Stefan Bratkowski, a Solidarity journalist. ``In 1980, we were a nation of hope - and we were not successful. In 1989, we are the nation of success - and we have no hope.''

Looking back at the first period with a legal Solidarity, many Poles today feel they were too enthusiastic - and a bit naive. Positive change in a communist country always can be rolled back. Poland had its martial law, China its Tiananmen Square.

The best strategy, Poles believe, is to keep calm, not to celebrate prematurely. A strong dose of realism - and luck - is necessary to transform a one-party totalitarian state into a multiparty democratic one.

Meat shops without meat and gasoline queues that stretch around the block are additional reasons for the sullen atmosphere. The economy, never good, has deteriorated drastically over the past few months.

The outgoing communist administration overspent. In an effort to win votes before the June elections, it gave workers huge pay raises which fueled inflation. When the communists lost anyhow, they responded by freeing all food prices, which sent inflation soaring.

Savings are flowing into ``hard'' Western currencies - marks or dollars. The government has opened ``free'' market currency stands, trying to stem the black market.

These sell the nonconvertible zloty at the street rate, well above the official rate. At the end of July, the zloty stood at 4,400 to the dollar. By the end of August, the Polish currency had plummeted to 8,800 to the dollar.

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The devaluation makes for surrealistic prices. A taxi from the airport costs less than 50 cents. First-class train fare from Warsaw to Gdansk runs only about 75 cents. A meal in Warsaw's most luxurious restaurant - admittedly not too luxurious - comes for only a dollar or two.

But that same taxi ride, train ticket, or restaurant meal, is becoming more and more expensive for Poles. Their average wage, converted on the ``free'' market, has fallen to a mere $15 per month. For a family of four, that much is needed to buy food.

``I once made $30 a month; now I make less than $15 a month,'' a research scientist laments at a party. ``Unless they have a rich relative in America or work abroad, I don't know how they live.''

The new Solidarity government must offer hope, show the skeptical public that something is changing.

Solidarity officials aim for a ``psychological shock.'' This ``shock'' should be big enough to break through the heavy layer of despair which has fallen over the country, while not being so big as to provoke a roll back by the frightened communists.

So far, however, most Poles find it hard to see much change. The same television announcers who put on Army uniforms to announce martial law back in 1981 still read the nightly news. The state press agency still puts out the old communist propaganda. The same functionaries run the same factories. The same bureaucrats remain in the same offices.

EVEN at the Council of Ministers, where Solidarity Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki has his office, the old communists have kept their positions.

Mr. Mazowiecki called in the top seven state secretaries, all loyal party members. They thought they were about to be fired. Instead, the prime minister said there would be no ``witch hunt'' and asked them for their loyalty.

``I couldn't believe it,'' said one of the seven, astonished. ``I was sure he would have to remove us. If I were him, I'd remove us.''

Poland's history is heavy with tragedy. Living between two giants, Germany and Russia, never has been easy. The Poles were conquered and their country partitioned countless times. Through all their struggles, they persisted. Their national anthem rings out, ``Poland has not yet perished.''

This courage is often accompanied by a tendency toward self-glorification and martyrdom. Poland sits astride the ``heart of Europe,'' one often is reminded. It is the place where World War II started, and now the place where the postwar order is being reshaped.

Poland is the largest, the most populous, and the most strategically located Soviet ally.

Americans often are blamed for letting Poland fall under Soviet domination. ``Remember Yalta,'' one is reminded. ``It was your President Roosevelt who signed us into slavery.''

Until now, it has been easy for Poles to say that nothing would improve until the Soviets let them free. Now they are groping toward their freedom, and thoughtful Poles know that they have a chance to discard the easy search for a scapegoat and become responsible for themselves.

``We must begin to help ourselves,'' Msgr. Bronislaw Plaseck tells his parishioners. ``Solidarity will be able to help us only when we help ourselves.''

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