Poles gird for austere new year -- and economic reform

By , Special correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

''Dosiego nowego roku.'' A prosperous new year!

''Dosiego'' is an archaic Polish word meaning ''prosperous'' or ''plenteous.'' It is used only in the New Year greeting.

It has a note of irony in 1982, for Poles face a year that is certain to be less than prosperous. Their currency has just been devalued, severe price rises are planned, and a long spell of austerity stretches ahead.

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But at last the government seems to have made a serious start on restructuring the economy. Throughout 1981 the war of distrust between the regime and the independent trade union Solidarity undercut efforts at economic reform. Given any chance, the new year could at least be better than the year just ended.

The new policies were disclosed in a year-end package three weeks after martial law was imposed.

At the same time the government reported the first cases against strike leaders at two centers that held out the longest against the Dec. 13 crackdown on the union. Sentences of up to seven years were handed down for five activists at the Katowice steelworks; five others were indicted for allegedly inciting the staydown at the Piast mine.

More such cases may be expected. They will do nothing to allay bitterness among the rank and file.

But the initial shock to the nation as a whole may be subsiding. A measure of calm appears to be returning to the industrial scene and some normality to ordinary life.

A first test will come Jan. 4, as primary and secondary schools reopen. Although active protest among college students seems to have quieted, the universities remain closed.

The return to work will be more telling. The peace at the Baltic ports remains fragile, but at the weekend, Warsaw radio claimed that some 2,000 men had showed up at the Gdansk yard -- cradle of the union in 1980 -- to get ready for the resumption of work this week.

It was said that railroad workers at eastern border points gave up part of the holiday to start moving freight from Soviet trains to Polish transport facilities.

There is no hint as to how long martial law will be in force. But the authorities have put off local government elections due in February to await ''an atmosphere of social peace.''

These elections had been one of the most bitter issues between government and union. Solidarity demanded complete freedom of local choice of candidates (in place of the established screening controlled by the Communist Party).

The regime seems to be trying to demonstrate that it intends to make a thorough sweep of past malpractice, and -- when ''social peace'' prevails - to return to the essence of the reform process. This obviously will include safeguards against the kind of challenge to ideological writ that brought about the showdown with Solidarity.

In other weekend disclosures, the government seemed trying to assure people that that party's ''guilty men'' are also being called to account.

It said cases against former party chief Edward Gierek and some of his close aides are nearly complete. They are charged with abuse of power and privilege.

Former radio and television chief, Maciej Szczepanski, who was arrested in summer 1980 amid a bizarre array of allegations of corruption, is to appear in court Jan. 5.

Five provincial governors and nearly 100 other senior regional officials have been fired since martial law began.

But the emphasis is on economic reform, which in the long run will be the key to any endeavor to lift Poland from its morass of misrule. The new measures include:

* Devaluation of the currency, setting the zloty at 80 to the dollar instead of the present tourist rate of 30 or 31.

* Extra meat rations for pregnant women, school children, and workers doing hazardous jobs or heavy manual labor. Others will get even less meat than in recent months.

* Plans for a new supply-demand price structure to cut subsidies and make the economy competitive. This will raise some basic food prices by 300 percent, a prospect that roused violent resistance on previous occasions.

This time, however, there will be public discussion of the changes and the unions will be allowed to participate. The government is conceding a Solidarity demand for compensation in the pay packet. Apparently the new average wage of 7, 700 zlotys is to rise by some 1,200 under devaluation.

That will give an average Pole $110 monthly (conversion is still quite unrealistic) compared to $300 at the old rate. But the zloty may begin to be money again.

For the overhaul to be genuine and far-reaching, however, these moves must be followed by far deeper changes to create the decentralized system foreseen last year: These would break with the old command structure at the center, leaving only overall planning guidelines to government and giving management a sink-or-swim responsibility for individual industries and enterprises.

It is a formidable venture for a country in Poland's present plight. It will entail massive shifts and cuts in production, and plant closures that could leave as many as half a million Poles unemployed by 1985.

How all this is handled will turn on how, and how soon, the current crisis can be resolved. Everything -- even the price increases -- will depend on how the pledge of a continued existence for Solidarity is honored.

[Reuters reports that union leader Lech Walesa, who remains under house arrest in Warsaw, has set three conditions for talks with the government. These include that all talks would be held on neutral ground and that the other members of the unions 18-member executive committee, as well as three advisers, be present.]

[In another report, Reuters said that Poland had come up with the $350 million it needed to avoid technical default on its huge $26 billion debt to Western governments and banks. It is assumed that the money came from the East bloc, probably from Moscow itself.]

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