Gdansk, Poland — The Soviet state planning chief came to Poland. He asked many questions. He talked. He listened. But he flew back to Moscow without making the Poles any specific new offer in their increasingly desperate need for yet more support in trying to snatch their economy back from the brink of collapse.
And it is now clear that Soviet aid to Poland has become a prime political as well as economic question. Amid all the Kremlin's mounting anxiety over what is happening here, it is of such significance for future Polish-Soviet relations that it will be settled only by a further meeting at the very top of the two party leaderships.
Last week's visit here of Nikolai Baibakov, Soviet vice-premier and chief of the planning commission, was a follow-up to a meeting between President Brezhnev and Polish party leader Stanislaw Kania in the Crimea in August.
On that occasion, the Russians agreed to further rescheduling of Poland's debts under the next five-year plan. They also promised more raw materials to keep its flagging light industries and food sectors going.
Since then the Polish political and economic situation has worsened considerably. In particular, in the Soviet view, the Polish leaders still are not fulfilling their undertakings to curb political opposition and firmly reestablish the party's tattered authority.
The recent warnings to Poles from Mr. Kania and Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski that, if need be, the Army will support the police in putting down antisocialist activity obviously have not impressed the Russians sufficiently to persuade them to come forward with more economic help.
Yet the state of the economy could hardly be worse. For 12 months it has gone steadily downhill.
the long queues and often empty shelves at food stores attest to that -- although now, thanks to a good harvest as well as emergency help from the West to augment that from the East, supplies are a little bit better.
The grim reality of the threat of collapse is evident in the report of the economy's performance during the first eight months of this year:
* Industrial output was down 13 percent compared with the same period last year. It was still lower during the two main summer months.
* Pig and cattle herds declined so sharply that private farm deliveries of meat to the state markets slumped by 34 percent.
* Foreign trade and exports went down by 24 percent, those to Western nations by 35 percent.
The crisis has forced a halt to investment. Many projects have stalled halfway through construction. The Poles hope the Russians and some of their East European neighbors will finish some of these projects, then operate them, possibly for third markets.
But on this -- as on the future of economic support and cooperation -- the Soviets are giving the Poles no more than a hope that something might be done.
The Poles themselves seem hardly surprised. Deputy Foreign Trade Minister Tadeusz Nestorowicz said in a recent interview that any production at all would be "out of the question" were it not for Soviet and East-bloc deliveries of raw materials. These, he said, will account for 60 percent of Polish imports this year.
The export situation, he said, is "appalling."
Poland, in fact, has no money to buy Western materials for its export industries. The little hard-currency reserve it has must go almost exclusively to import food.
According to Mr. Nestorowicz, the Russians had even exceeded their side of the trade agreement, providing almost 9 million tons of oil between January and August, for example, which was more than contracted for. Soviet deliveries overall were eight times greater than the Poles' deliveries to Russia.
On Sept. 1, Poland's adverse balance with the East-bloc states stood between 4 and 5 billion convertible zlotys ($1 billion to $1.25 billion), 90 percent of it to the Soviet Union.
Inevitably, the statement prompts the question: But for how long? The so-far-fruitless talks with Mr. Baibakov suggest Soviet tolerance is diminishing.
One encounters a staggeringly bland response from some Poles -- outside official government quarters, of course -- when this question of reduced Soviet economic support is posed.
Suppose the Russians decide to continue only minimal essential aid -- or even stop aid as such -- or put trade on a reciprocal basis, one asks, what then?
"Oh, the West will help us!" is the comfortable reply.
But will it? Or can it, as individual countries face their own budget problems, and the prospect of major international financial difficulties appears?
The United States and the other Western states to whom Poland owes most of it
But, with the magnitude of Polish need, this is modest, indeed. And, in the light of the present indebtedness, there is meager prospect of Western governments (and still less of banks) undertaking anything more concrete.
the bleakest area of the Polish economy is coal -- once its biggest export potential. Production this year will be at least 30 million tons below 1980's. In 1979, 27 million tons were sold to capitalist countries, last year only 20 million. This year it will be a mere 9 million tons. This all represents a devastating loss of hard currency that might have purchased vital materials in the West.
As it is, Poland must continue to count on the Soviet Union for its oil (at least 80 percent), its gas (100 percent), and some 70 percent of most other basic raw materials.
The next step, meanwhile, is certain to be an early meeting with Mr. Brezhnev. This time political considerations will weigh far more heavily than whether Poland can pay, and when.