Poland pushes unity to camouflage failures

Reform or national unity? Poland, which entered 1980 with its most difficult economic situation since World War II, needs both, its would-be reformers say.

The Gierek regime, which took over in the calamitous riots of late 1970 and barely survived a similar demonstration of public discontent four years ago, has opted for unity first, taking two striking moves as its party congress opens in Warsaw today.

* It announced modification of the planned road that would have threatened the "pilgrims' way" approach to the church's most revered shrine, the Jasna Gora Monasteryat Czestochowa.

* It carried a tribute in all the Polish dailies to the work of former leader Wladislaw Gomulka on the occasion of his 75th birthday.

In immediate terms, the gesture to the Roman Catholic Church was the more important of the two. For, despite the ideological authority of the Communist Party, the church remains the most influential moral force in the country.

Moreover, the church has become more confident, as government spokesmen admit , since the visit of Pope John Paul II to his native land last year.

The government, which then seemed ready to make modest concessions, has yet to meet specific demands that the church has pressed for years. These range from an end to discrimination against believers in public office to more newsprint for church publications. But the decision announced Feb. 8 to modify local planning of the road that threatens the peaceful approach to the Jasna Gora Monastery was a distinctly conciliatory move.

It showed recognition both of the church's enhanced authority in the public's mind since the Pontiff's visit and of the party leadership's need to secure the church's cooperation for a social revival.

The other bid for unity came in the tribute paid to Wladislaw Gomulka a few days earlier.

Mr. Gomulka is in his way a tragic figure of postwar Polish politics.

He was the party's "liberalizer" in the de- Stalinization of 1956, but he became autocratic in the difficult late 1960s. He was driven from office by the food price riots of 1970.

The generous eulogy carried by all the Polish dailies feb. 6 was the first such public acknowledgement his work had received.

The primary emphasis at this week's congress will be a broad appeal to unity in an effort to grapple with the politically dangerous shortfalls and disappointments that have followed the promise of the early Gierek years.

For this, church support is imperative, as is that of a party that remains fairly solidly behind Mr. Gierek. However, it does have a wing that believes that more than a touch of the later Gomulka authoritarianism is needed.

Ironically, Mr. Gierek is constrained by the very issue that brought his predecessor down.

For a country with hard-currency debts of $17-to-$18 billion (the price of modernizing industry and keeping the nation fed in the face of repeated harvest failures), continuing food subsidies is a heavy burden. But for purely political reasons, Mr. Gierek cannot raise prices to economic levels. Growth has slowed to less than half the level targeted five years ago. Consumers are promised more and quicker deliveries of cars and televisions. But grave discontent will remain.

For the reformers, the outlook seems bleak. A semiofficial group of professionals and intellectuals has urged, so far unsuccessfully, a new flexibility in planning and management, changes of style in leadership to create a more open society, and opportunities for genuine public participation in affairs.

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