For Poles, some crumbs of comfort

By , Special correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The government is trying desperately to convince Poles that it is doing everything possible to ease the current food crisis -- and that it needs the cooperation of them all if it is to succeed.

At the same time, it is emphasizing that the agreements it made with the Solidarity union last summer -- and a torrent of demands the union has made since then -- must be renegotiated into a package the economy can bear.

These twin themes were at the center of the government-union talks that reopened here Thursday in the wake of this week's union-sponsored mass demonstrations.

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The government sees the agreements themselves as having contributed to a dramatic slump in the economy. Big hikes in pay and social allowances put more money into Polish pockets and raised expectations that the government could not meet as industrial production fell and agriculture declined.

Even Solidarity now accepts government suggestions that some of the agreements will have to be rejigged to fit economic realities. But it contends that it was the failure to implement these agreements in their entirety that set the stage for this week's explosion of bitterness over the worst of all the periodic food crises the country has suffered since World War II.

Meanwhile, some crumbs of comfort have fallen the government's way:

Splendid harvesting weather is raising hopes that plentiful grain and root crops will ease the pressure on consumers.If the harvest is good, it may encourage private farmers to raise more livestock -- and sell produce to the state markets.

France's Aug. 5 decision to speed delivery of foodstuffs -- including 300,000 tons of rye and 7,000 of beef -- is seen here as a sign that the West is beginning to understand the urgency of Poland's food shortages. There is talk that some of these supplies may be flown in.

Just how near rock-bottom the supplies of various goods are was indicated earlier this week when several industrial regions added to the government's list of rationed items. They set quotas on more food items and even such things as diapers.

The first official reports of raids on black markets in the cities seem to justify complaints that more food than can be found in the shops is available "under the counter" or from speculators.

A swoop on one of the biggest here resulted in price- abuse charges against 100 private vendors whose stocks ranged from sugar and coffee to razor blades and tights. They were said to be making 30,000 to 40,000 zlotys dailym (as much as $1,000) -- five to six times the average monthly wage.

In a move that may bolster public morale, the confiscated goods are being sent to ordinary retail stores.

But hope that the food situation will improve rests on the realization that in other ways life in Poland hasm improved over the past 12 months.

The first big gain, of course, was Solidarity itself -- and the legal right to strike. The union has already exercised that right frequently.

It has also built itself into an effective force (more powerful even than the Roman Catholic Church), even if final power still rests with the Communist Party and regime.

This is what this week's demonstration and earlier warning strikes were really about. In its charter, the union recognizes the party's role. Most Poles realize it had no choice. But the government still obviously scents a challenger even though it offers Solidarity partnership.

Nonetheless, the gains for the union and the people in general are considerable. They include:

* A more open and lively press than at any time since the brief euphoria of 1956.

* Access to the mass media for Solidarity. The union gets a newsprint allotment giving its own paper the largest circulation (500,000 copies) in Poland.

* A regular radio broadcast of Sunday mass. The Roman Catholic Church had sought this since the 1950s.

* A five-day week in industry, better terms for individual farmers, and recognition of a private farmers' union.

* More authority for parliament. It sits more often than ever before and has commissions playing a real part in legislation -- for example, as with the new, liberal censorship law.

* Broad concessions to students and universities, allowing free choice of language and philosophy and political science studies.

* And -- after last month's Communist Party congress -- a democratized party. Its rank and file now elect its top leadership by secret ballot.

The censorship law has obvious limits.But it does institutionalize press and cultural freedoms denied Poles almost continuously since the war. It curbs the power of the censor's office and holds it accountable, not to the government, but to the Council of State and parliament. For the first time, editors have the right of appeal.

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