Martial law blues for black market money-changers
Poland's military crackdown has put the squeeze on the country's flourishing black- market money-changers.
Until martial law, Poland's cynkciarze or black-market money-changers were not only tolerated. They were an accepted part of Polish life.
The cynkciarze (pronounced ''chink chasse'') were among the first victims of the emergency rule imposed Dec. 13.
Over the years they had come to regard themselves as an institution and service. In an interview with the Polish weekly Polityka recently, one of their number made it seem almost a public loss that their activities were halted by martial law.
The cynkciarze who customarily crowd the glass entryway at Warsaw's Intercontinental Victoria Hotel disappeared as the police net fell on Solidarity activists and their dissident advisers. So did those usually lining the doorways of the state's PEWEX hard-currency stores.
PEWEX is one of the anomalies of latter-day Poland. A fortunate minority of Poles who have relatives in the United States have dollars with which to buy things at PEWEX stores that are in extremely short supply or nonexistent on the general market. Many use their dollars to buy vodka, which is rationed to a half-liter per adult per month if it is purchased with zlotys. PEWEX sells it without limits for hard currency.
Many others use their hard currency for consumer essentials like toothpaste, which has disappeared from ordinary shops, or for soap. Under rationing, Poles can buy a single cake of poor-quality soap every two months.
This was where the cynkciarze came in for Poles who did not have dollars, and where the cynkciarze came in for big deals.
Polityka undertook a serious review of their activities. It related how, as soon as martial law was announced, a farmer specializing in horticulture showed up at one of the money-changers' haunts with 20 million zlotys he wanted changed ''as quickly as possible'' into dollars. The rate did not matter, he said - since panic reactions had started it soaring.
The deal was made. It was one of the last of the big ones.
The black market for dollars has long been a Polish way of life.
''Almost every Pole looks for dollars,'' Polityka writer Michat Jaranowski said. ''Some want only to buy chocolate for a child, some want a car. (A person buying a car with zlotys can wait five years. Dollars will get him a car right off the assembly line.)
''But few will have got the money from a kind aunt abroad or by earning it.''
According to Polityka's anonymous interviewee - now apparently out of business - there are ''veteran'' and ''amateur'' classes in the black money mart.
''You could count on the veterarni,'' he said. ''They had their regular customers. They knew the importance of reliability and trust. Last year a lot of sneaky amateurs got into the act. They were out for big and quick profits, and they often swindled the customer.
''A veteran,'' he added with a cheeky touch of pride, ''could be trusted.''
''When I started, I thought the business was simply a product of common cynicism. But I quickly realized that in Polish conditions the black market had to exist as an objective phenomenon.
''The state was responsible because it provided goods available only for hard currency. But the demand was determined by entirely independent factors - a matter only of who could get the currency and how. The state may not like it, but these were the simple facts.''
The veterarni, Polityka said, saw themselves as ''respected specialists in the 'banking' business capable even of holding high positions in the normal financial world.''
The authorities did little to check their activities before martial law. The black market was tolerated not only as an outlet for consumer frustrations, but - according to a National Bank official quoted by Polityka - as a monitor of inflation caused by the Polish currency's own devastating lack of value.
Martial law sparked a flurry among Poles eager to capitalize on hoarded zlotys.
But the military crackdown and the severe penalties introduced quickly put the lid on the black ''stock exchange.'' Moreover, the flow of hard currency into Poland, either to private persons or to the government from visitors or tourism, has dried up.
Poles with legitimate accounts are worried about their bank deposits.
How much foreign exchange is, in fact, in private Polish hands is impossible to tell. On paper, the state bank holds $600 million in 2.4 million accounts. No one knows how much reposes in stockings, mattresses, or in some secret place under the floor.