Food prices (and unrest?) soar in Poland. Martial law may silence dissent, but it won't make farmers produce more
Vienna — * Last week Poles paid 34 cents a pound for ham - if they could find any. This week it costs more than four times as much ($1.59). And ham is only one of many foods which have just been doubled, tripled, quadrupled, or more in price.
* Over the weekend there were street demonstrations in Gdansk, original home of the Solidarity union movement. Six civilians and eight policemen were injured and more than 200 people arrested.
The two events are clearly connected. Food prices traditionally have been an explosive issue in Poland. In 1956 and 1970 attempts to raise prices touched off rioting that toppled the regime then in power.
But this latest round, forced on Poland by its downward spiralling economy, is being pushed through under the disciplinary rod of martial law. And that enables the jolting increases to be thrust upon Poles without the government losing control. In Gdansk, for instance, the authorities have extended the curfew, suspended all public entertainment and sports, and banned private cars from the roads.
From late last week, there had been more security personnel on the streets of Warsaw and other industrial cities and at big work centers like the Baltic shipyards than for the last few weeks.
Their presence was obviously precautionary. There seems little likelihood - and there certainly is much less opportunity - for any large-scale repetition of the unrest on the streets over scarce and dearer food that touched off the present crisis in the summer of 1980. Indeed in Warsaw the price hikes were greeted with apparent resignation.
This time, moreover, the government also announced a string of measures calculated to soften the impact of a doubling and tripling of basic food and other consumer costs. These included:
* Freeing personal and savings accounts at the banks from drawing limits imposed with the introduction of martial law Dec. 13.
* Authorizing enterprise managements to help lower-paid workers meet increased domestic heating charges, and giving state employees an annual bonus of a month's pay. Previously only industrial workers were entitled to the bonus.
* Instituting price controls to protect consumers against unauthorized increases, with a special commission monitoring prices on the ''free'' market, where private farmers sell their meat and other scarce produce at two and three times the official prices.
Some essential foodstuffs and household commodities, together with clothes and even some children's toys, have been added to the list of state-regulated prices.
Simultaneously with the new prices, the authorities eased more of the general martial law restrictions. Intercity telephone service is to be restored soon, as is the telegram service. The ban on family and other social gatherings has been lifted, but public meetings of all kinds are still forbidden.
Poland is not alone in trying at last to get prices on a realistically economic level. Czechosolvakia was also taking this first step toward planning and management reforms - and making a start on coming to grips with one of the most sensitive issues in communist-bloc practice.
Meat prices went up an average 27 percent in Czechoslovakia Jan. 30, with prices on other foodstuffs, cigarettes, and spirits to follow this week. (Gasoline and other fuels doubled in price last October.)
Both countries are signaling the end of the popular and propagandist myth of ''cheap food'' as well as the economic merit of relieving budgets of subsidies that have covered up to 40 percent of retail prices.There are, of course, some big differences between the two countries. Until the late 1970s, Czechoslovaks enjoyed a better standard of living than most other East Europeans.The country has gathered a crop of problems since then, but even so, its current slowdown in agriculture and reductions in food on the table do not compare with the shortages in Poland. The Czechoslovak regime is trying to offset the higher prices with compensatory increases in family allowances, pensions, and wages - especially for heavy work. Although these cover much of the hike in living costs , they still leave a dent in the pay packet. But grumbling is likely to be the only public reaction.Most food prices have not changed for almost two decades. Meat has cost only minimally more than in the early '50s. With an average monthly wage of about 2,700 crowns (about $270) - and the currency not nearly so weak in purchasing terms as other East European money - Czechs still live relatively well.Poland, on the other hand, is beset by shortages and there are long lines for almost anything.Compared with prices in Austria and Western Europe generally, the new higher prices of goods in Poland are still not unreasonable. They would not be in Poland, either, under more ''normal'' conditions. Poles and Czechs both tend to spend 30 to 40 percent of earnings on food, but both are more concerned about the shortages and frustrations of maldistribution than price increases themselves.The Polish farmers complain - like many urban Poles and Czechs - that they have plenty of cash but nothing they want to spend it on. Moreover, a run of bad harvests has increased shortages of animal feed, and the government's dwindling hard currency has diminished import possibilities. The result: less meat, less poultry, and so on.The regime has not created conditions under which it pays peasants to deliver more to state markets, where officially fixed prices apply. Thus there are empty shops outside which people queue for a day for decent meat. Many still go away empty-handed.The meat rationing introduced last year would be adequate if the quantity promised on the card was available. But it rarely is. People are forced to buy on the private market, where eggs, vegetables, and meat have long sold at up to three times the ordinary state price. They will cost much more as the 1982 shortfall in meat supplies hits home.Polish peasants, like farmers anywhere, are waiting for a good price. They undoubtedly have grain stocked in their barns.The government wants them to part with it for bonds redeemable in two or three years at the best price during that period. The authorities have even offered an immediate increase in cash. But the farmers need inputs and tools and more commodities in village shops, not pieces of paper.This situation could kindle sharp tensions between hungry towns and a countryside that, despite its own difficulties, remains well fed. The town consumer might look to the authorities to put pressure on the peasants, but any such action would be counterproductive.Jan Kulaj, the young farmer who is the president of Rural Solidarity, said as much last year: ''What farmers are waiting for is not higher prices but, above all, the means of production. If the government does not assure these, . . . then the struggle to save agriculture will be lost.''Agriculture is still the key to the situation. Martial law will in all likelihood preclude serious troubles over the new price tags. But raising prices alone will not break the present vicious circle.