Poland's financial tangle snares both Soviets and West

All the major actors in the Polish drama - the Soviet Union, Western governments and banks, and the Poles themselves - are caught up in a Catch-22 situation revolving around the parlous state of Poland's economy.

From Moscow's point of view, the kind of decentralized and innovative economic planning developed by communist Hungary is impermissible for Poland.

Such a development might allow Poland, in time, to become more competitive on world markets, able to pay for more of its imports through the sale of Polish goods abroad.

But top leaders in Moscow and Warsaw also fear that abandonment of tightly centralized planning - the hallmark of communist economics - would unravel communist political authority as well.

Poland, meanwhile, unable to feed, clothe, and equip its people, borrows more heavily year by year to import food, fiber, and other basic goods and commodities.

As of July 1981, according to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) in Switzerland, Poland owed $16.17 billion to Western banks and $10.5 billion to Western governments.

Interest payments on this debt - by far the highest debt owed by any communist land - absorbs an estimated 30 percent of the hard currency which Poland earns from exports.

In addition, Poland owes billions of dollars worth of debts to its Eastern bloc allies, grouped within the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, or Comecon, roughly the equivalent of Western Europe's Economic Community.

Comecon, last summer, agreed at Moscow's insistence to reschedule, or stretch out, $4 billion worth of Poland's East bloc debt.

Earlier in 1981, the 460 Western banks with loans outstanding to Poland agreed to postpone repayment of $2.4 billion due this year. Warsaw's debts to Western governments already had been stretched out.

US banks hold about 10 percent of Poland's debts to private banks, according to US banking sources. West German banks are more heavily exposed and Arab banks also are major creditors.

All this thrusts the Soviets and Western capitalists into an unspoken but tacit kind of cooperation, based on the common desire to avoid upheaval in Poland:

* Western creditors want their money, but realize they may not get it if civil unrest, with or without Soviet intervention, erupts in Poland.

This forces Western banks and governments to support, again tacitly, the continuation of communist rule in Poland - although the system manifestly is incompetent to run the nation's economy.

* Soviet leaders want to avoid an armed takeover of Poland, which among other things would make Moscow responsible for running Poland's economy and possibly for repayment of Polish debts.

The Soviet Union itself, which owes about $17 billion to Western creditors, always makes its payments on time.

The Polish government, before the latest round of tension, applied to join the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a 141-nation body which - together with its sister organization, the World Bank - is a prime source of loan capital to struggling economies.

Major Western nations, including the US, favor Polish membership of the IMF. Loans by the fund are tied to conditions of varying strictness, requiring recipient governments to put their economic houses in order - or at least to indicate how they plan to do so.

Moscow in the past has opposed Eastern bloc membership of the IMF, because of the fund's insistence that a country seeking a loan in effect open its books to the West and accept economic advice.

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