Protests in Poland

Having won a war, are the Polish people now to lose the peace? Only a short time after historic reforms in the communist party, Poles are in the streets demonstrating against mounting meat and other shortages. Sympathetic friends abroad inevitably wonder just how much longer public unrest can persist before the threshold of Soviet tolerance is reached.They are especially puzzled by Polish consumer demands in the face of what would seem the government's inability to meet them. Are Poles now going too far? Is it not time for them to buckle down and get to work?

Indeed it would seem so. Even the national leadership of Solidarity, the free trade union movement, may not be too enthsiastic about the protests, though, for political reasons, it has taken command of them. But it clearly is hard to contain a welling up of consumer dissatisfaction over the sorry food situation after so many years of mismanagement (although) Poles, it must be said, are not going hungry). The demonstration in Warsaw and other towns point ot the depth of social resentment in Poland and the lack of trust Poles have in the authorities. The credibility to gap remains immense, and this is what the Polish government must seek to close -- not by giving what it does not have to give but by showing by its actions that it is seriously restructing the economy.

Meat shortages are the isse at hand. But there is also a power issue -- a continuing struggle between Solidarity and the state over the nature of the country's future economic direction. Lech Walesa and other Solidarity leaders are concerned about the government's effort to put through across-the-board price increases without any commitment to the union's demand for worker self-management -- including the right to appoint plant directors. There is no quarrel that food prices must be raised; food has been ridiculously subsidized for years. But the union reformers feel the government is not going far enough in granting meaningful reforms.

They no doubt recall the bitter lessons of history. In 1956, too, the regime of Wladyslaw Gomulka instituted workers' self-government following a wave of labor riots. It agreed to let workers pick their own directors. But the experiment was a short-lived one when the communist party saw its own unpopular choices displaced and its authority undermined. Before long the reform was jeetisoned. Today the union leadership is determined not to see this happen again. The government, on the other hand, claims that what Solidarity wants would limit state authority more than in any other Soviet-bloc country.

It is likely that a compromise will ultimately be reached on this potentially explosive issue. But in the meantime the government needs to convince the Polish people that down thet road there are prospects for more food -- and that every hour of protest in the streets means an hour of lost production and the worsening of an alredy dreadful financial situation. How it can do this is problematic but assurances of food supplies from the outside could help. One idea gaining currency in the West is to have Poland join the International Monetary Fund -- a move which would require of the Polich government strict economic accounting in return for additional loans and thus persuade both Western creditors and Polish consumers that the government is headed toward economic reform and fiscal responsibility.

Poland may be reluctant to take such a step: it would become only the second Warsaw Pact country after Romania to belong to this Western financial institution. But the alternative -- continuing mass demonstrations and strikes that could lead to martial law or Soviet intervention -- is not happy for the Warsaw government to contemplate either.It, no less than the Polish people, needs to bite the bullet .

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