Teller window opens again for Poland but West's credit will not flow easily
The official lifting of martial law in Poland has enabled Western governments to take a first step toward lifting a financial sanction with which they punished themselves rather than Warsaw's communist rulers.
After Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski decreed the military clampdown in December 1981, the West broke off negotiations on rescheduling Poland's massive official debt to Western governments, estimated to total around $17 billion. But the move , intended to drive home Western opposition to the attack on the Solidarity trade union, backfired.
For Poland has since avoided repaying any of its debt to governments. The Poles were due to repay $2.2 billion in principal and interest in 1982 and $2.9 billion this year. Since the country's foreign-exchange earnings are insufficient even to service its estimated $10 billion of debts to Western commercial banks, its government creditors would probably have received little anyway.
''By boycotting the rescheduling, we really were shooting ourselves through the foot. At least the banks managed to get some of their money back,'' a West German official said.
Seizing gratefully on the end of martial law, senior Western officials agreed in Paris last week to resume negotiations on Poland's official debt after technical talks next month. The United States, however, warned that its role in the talks depended on Poland's actual release of political prisoners.
The Polish debt crisis, which coincided in 1980 with the rise of Solidarity, was the result of the ambitious industrialization program launched by Communist leader Edward Gierek in the 1970s. Western bankers were encouraged to make enormous loans by governments which saw political advantage in encouraging more independent-minded East European countries to rely on credit from the West.
As late as July 1980 a consortium of West German banks, prompted by then-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, put together a $500 million loan for Warsaw, half of it underwritten by the Bonn government. Although Poland was already on the brink of insolvency, the deal raised hardly a murmur of protest.
Poland's financial predicament marked a watershed both in Western lending to the Soviet bloc and in Moscow's attitude to the borrowing policies of its East European satellites.
Western banks, chastened by the Polish experience and simultaneously worried by the debt crisis of Latin American states and the solvency of some major Western corporations, are now demanding either hard-currency guarantees or full underwriting by governments.
Along with Poland on the bankers' black list at present are Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania.
Moscow, meanwhile, has undertaken strenuous efforts to reduce Eastern European economic reliance on credit from the West, even - some German bankers believe - to the extent of selling more of its oil and gold on Western markets to lend cash to its allies.
The only major East-West loan this year has been a $400 million West German commercial bank credit to East Germany, arranged by Bavarian Premier Franz Josef Strauss. The loan was underwritten by the Bonn government, and East Germany agreed that in case of default, West Germany would withhold payments it makes by treaty for transit rights to West Berlin.
The East German loan seemed aimed at securing future concessions on humanitarian exchanges between the two German states. It may also have been underwritten by Bonn in the hope of preventing East German retaliation when deployment begins in December of Pershing II missiles.
Bankers consider East Germany is anyway the most efficient and solvent of the East European countries. They nevertheless demanded, and obtained, a higher rate of interest than is usual on government-backed loans.
Commercial banks continued to negotiate with Poland while martial law was in force and agreed to give the country an extra seven years to repay most of the debt due in 1982. Last year's rescheduling covered $2.4 billion, and the banks agreed to loan back about 50 percent of that sum in short-term trade credits.
Banking sources say agreement is now close on even more lenient terms for a restructuring of the $2.6 billion of principal and interest that Poland is due to repay on commercial credits this year. The 500 banks involved have offered Warsaw an extra 10 years to repay its 1983 debt instead of the seven years agreed for 1982 repayments.
''The general feeling is that Poland is still disastrously insolvent. Nobody sees any sign of hope that the economy can recover sufficiently to enable repayment,'' a Frankfurt banker said.
West German officials say that even if it gradually becomes politically acceptable again to help Poland, the most likely course would be to support Roman Catholic Church-backed efforts to promote private agriculture, rather than giving direct aid to the Warsaw government.