Torrent of woes keeps Poland's ombudsman, er, woman, on the go. EAST BLOC'S MRS. FIXIT
AS the communist world's first ombudsman, Eva Letarska defends Poland's poor and angry against the all-powerful state. It is a tiring job. The 45-year-old lawyer works seven days a week, starting at 6 a.m., finishing at 9 p.m. From Monday to Saturday, morning to evening, she and her staff of 24 assistants receive an endless stream of visitors at her office here on Jasna Street.
Mrs. Letarska no longer has time to relax with her favorite hobby, listening to classical music. On Sundays, she must catch up on letters. In her six months on the job, she has received 32,919 complaints. Stacks of mail pile up outside her office.
``We're being overwhelmed,'' she complains. ``The ombudsman is here to help when something goes astray, and obviously a lot is going astray these days in socialist Poland.''
Her cases almost always are difficult:
Jolanta is married with two children. She lives with her mother, while her husband lives with his parents.
``We were promised an apartment,'' she pleads. ``I can't live like this.''
Pyotr's brick factory was nationalized by the state three decades ago. He wants it back - or compensation.
``My parents worked hard for this factory,'' he complains. ``It was stolen from me.''
Stanislaw was kicked out of his apartment by his wife. He now sleeps in the street.
``Why doesn't the government do anything?'' he aks. ``If I go back she threatens to kill me.''
Before the post of ombudsman was created earlier this year, none of these pained people had any recourse. The ombudsman is a Scandinavian invention, first started in 1809 in Sweden. Historically his - or her - task is to champion the rights of the individual with the shield of the law against the state.
Letarska operates independent of other state offices. A handsome, articulate woman, she exudes energy, authority - and impartiality. A professor at the University of Warsaw, she is not a Communist Party member.
An organization she finds guilty of a violation must make amends within 30 days. She can intervene in the courts against offending government departments if she feels an individual's rights have been infringed.
For Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski, the ombudsman is part of a series of political innovations aimed at restoring confidence in his government.
General Jaruzelski says he wants to operate under the rule of law. Other reforms include creating a supreme administrative court to hear appeals, holding a referendum on economic policy, and forming an advisory Constitutional Council including opposition members.
``These are interesting innovations,'' says journalist Marcin Krol. ``The ombudsman is not a party member, and she is doing a good job, even if she obviously cannot solve all our problems.''
Critics charge that it is all too little too late.
A decade ago, they say, the creation of an ombudsman would have been seen as a major breakthrough. Today, only the restoration of the banned independent trade union Solidarity might be enough.
``If it came along with a new situation of widespread reform, the ombudsman idea would be positive,'' says Bogdan Lis, a Solidarity leader. ``By itself, it means next to nothing.''
The ombudsman, Mr. Lis and other Solidarity leaders complain, must respect the independence of a judiciary that they do not consider independent. She also must not threaten state security interests.
``If she must work within the framework of a corrupt law, what worth is it?'' Lis asks. ``Obviously, she is not a free woman.''
When some Solidarity members asked Letarska to defend the banned independent union, she refused. Under a law passed by parliament in 1982, only one official union may operate in any place of work.
``According to the law on trade unions, the government has the right to suspend trade union pluralism,'' Letarska says. ``We might not agree, but legally, it's OK.''
Letarska does not shy away from all political cases. Draft resisters asked her to try to arrange alternative service to the obligatory two-year Army duty. She studied the practice in other countries, and concluded that Poles should have similar rights. A letter was drafted to parliament, and earlier this month, a law was passed stipulating rules for civil service.
Other successes include defending car buyers and telephone customers. Since cars are in short supply, car salesmen draft lists of eligible buyers, often placing friends at the head of the queue. Letarska complained. The government now issues impartial national lists.
The telephone company was playing similar games with its deliveries. It arbitrarily decided who would receive a phone and who wouldn't. Waiting times stretch to 20 years. Not fair, Lekarska charged. The courts agreed, and the telephone company must now publish telephone queues.
``These are the perfect types of case for me,'' says Lekarska. ``They're concrete issues, they affect large groups of people, they're either administrative problems or the faulty application of a law.''
They are not soaring political causes.
``When people tell me, `we want Solidarity,' there's not much I can do,'' she says. ``That's a political question, not a legal one.''
They are not small personal problems, either. She complains that she receives 20 times the number of complaints that a normal Swedish ombudsman does.
``People think I can solve all their problems for them, get them a flat, a telephone, even higher pay,'' she laments. ``I'm not a miracle woman.''
The limits of her powers soon become clear. Stanislaw, whose wife threw him out, receives little sympathy for his problems.
Jolanta with her two children will not find an apartment.
``You know how long the wait for apartments is,'' an obudsman aide tells her. Jolanta nods. She could wait another decade, or maybe two, before being able to live together with her husband. ``It's just hard to say exactly when you can expect an apartment.''
Pyotr is just as badly off with his parents' brick factory. ``The state legally took the factory from you,'' the aide says, ``and there's nothing you can do.''
``I finally thought I'd found someone who could help me,'' Pyotr complains. ``I was wrong.''