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Food prices (and unrest?) soar in Poland. Martial law may silence dissent, but it won't make farmers produce more

By Eric BourneSpecial correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 2, 1982


* 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.

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* 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.)