Polish turmoil grows beneath surface calm

"For three packs of cigarettes all Poland could have been set on fire," one commentator observed. He was referring to a riot in a little town outside Warsaw in which a mob of angry youths burned down the three-room police station. They were protesting police treatment of two youths who had been taken into custody. They alleged police brutality.

The trouble was sparked when a vendor at the railroad station refused to sell the two more than a single pack of cigarettes apiece, then let a policeman buy three packs. (Like other consumer items, cigarettes are in short supply in Poland.)

The violence that followed was a stark reminder of how volatile Poland remains despite eight months of government effort to defuse the crisis. It also pointed up the fragility of any new public confidence in the authorities.

In reporting the incident, Trybuna Ludu, the Communist Party newspaper, deplored the decline in law and order in Poland but suggested police may have been unjustifiably brutal in this case.

Most observers stressed the way such a seemingly trivial incident could spark so much passion.

The incident served as a reminder that the leadership has only two more months in which to come to terms with the two great issues of the day.When the special congress of the Communist Party meets in July, the regime will have to report to the party -- and the nation at large -- on:

* How it has cleaned up the Augean stable of corruption and widespread abuse of office revealed since last August.

* How it plans to carry through the promised "renewal" in economic management and institutionalization of more democracy and freedom than Poles have known in the 35 years of party rule.

The clean-up is under way. A party control commission announced earlier this month that 768 members had been expelled for corruption and breaches of ethical and moral standards. Almost 300 of them had held leading posts.

The "renewal" has also begun. The new unions are established; parliament is seeking more clout; the Roman Catholic mass is broadcast every Sunday; and most of the media disregard old shackles (and get away with it) while waiting for enactment of the law that is to put the censors on shorter rein.

But "waiting" is becoming a critical word. Evening after evening, Polish TV airs wordy "dyskusja" -- panels of officials, union representatives, and ordinary people debating all Poland's problems (except the politically supersensitive ones).

It is preferable to the previous news blackout. But some people see it as a screen of verbiage behind which action is being delayed on political issues and the economic program to rescue Poland.

The naming of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski to the premiership in February was welcomed. "We need some discipline," people said. But the momentum, they say now, is being lost.

"We are not moving fast enough," complains one of the younger party members. "We are told there is to be economic reform, but after six months it is still only being talked about.

"We know prices have to go up. Why doesn't the government work it out and tell people just how and when it will be?

"If it is fairly handled and properly explained, people will understand and accept it. But they want to see something being done."

It is not just austerity that is unavoidable in a recovery plan. There are issues of democrary itself. And nowhere is that more important than in the party.

"Without real democracy in the party," its reformers say, "there can be no democracy in society at large."

And that is what the congress slated for July 14 must really be about.

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