Poles brace for 'economic reform'; But will price hikes bring stability?

After Jan. 1, Poles who commute to work by rail will see their fares rise by 230 percent. Those taking the bus will pay 350 percent more for their monthly tickets.

The price of a second-class train ticket inside Poland will double. Buses go up 85 percent.

Only students will get a break. The normal student reduction on rail fares will be increased when the fares rise, and monthly school tickets by road will be unchanged.

Postal rates are to double as well.

These new prices are all part of the economic reform that is getting under way here.

The present fare system, however, reveals a need for such reforms. Currently, an express second-class fare from Warsaw to Gdansk (a distance of some 400 kilometers) is only 150 zlotys, less than $2 at the official rate. That's less than 50 cents at the black market rate.

The price of food, however, is another story. Most basic food prices were doubled or even quadrupled last February. The news media daily stresses the ''urgent need'' for further price adjustment. But the process is already making life harder than ever for most Poles and is eating further and further into living standards that have been reduced throughout the year.

The plan for the next three years entails a continuous process of higher prices, including food, though officials say that by 1985 the rate of increase should have fallen to around 10 percent. But this coming year, at least, increases in real terms must be substantially more.

Everyone - even the ordinary consumer - seems resigned to further shocks if genuine stability, as distinct from cosmetic performance, is to be brought into the marketplace and the economy at large.

But most people, especially the leadership, knows that such moves have twice toppled Polish regimes since 1970. For something like that to happen under the present conditions would be a disaster.

Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski is meeting workers face to face at such key centers of this year's unrest as the Nowa Huta steelworks in an effort to convince them there is no alternative to price increases if their living standards are ever to improve significantly in the long run.

General Jaruzelski's government talks of a ''very cautious approach'' to more price hikes. At the same time, it has little to offer, especially as the Christmas season approaches.

Its best offers so far are that soap and detergents may go off the ration next year and that for Christmas more pork and extra sugar will be available. There should be enough geese, turkeys, and ducks - but no chickens. As a side effect of that, there will also be 40 million fewer eggs than in a normal month.

The crisis is largely the legacy of the over-stretched and misplaced investments of the '70s. But such truisms, and the demands for arraignment before a new public tribunal of the former (Edward Gierek) leadership as scapegoats, make little impression on public opinion now, nor offer solutions.

It has since been realized, to take but one example, that two-thirds of all animal production was based on hard-currency imports never paid for by exports. That not only piled up foreign debts, it also robbed agriculture of a natural equilibrium, with animal production rising three times as fast as crop production.

A year ago, half of Polish households spent from 30 to 60 percent of their incomes on food. Now more than half of them must spend from 70 to 100 percent. Only a negligible margin get by on 30 percent.

Conventional hard-line wisdom holds that Poland's difficulties are due to foreign debts and ''over reliance'' on the West. But the argument that it must therefore not only increase its own ''self-sufficiency'' and involve itself in even stronger, almost exclusive ties within the East bloc trading community, Comecon, is strongly rebutted by the economists.

Credit and debt, they point out, are not peculiarly Polish - they are a commonplace of modern world economics. But, it was not the debt (wrote an economist quoted by the independent Roman Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny) that ''is our deadly sin. It is the way in which it was used, or, to be exact, wasted.''

To expect increased contacts with Comecon alone to overcome the crisis was an illusion, wrote Alexander Paszynski.

He warned against perpetuating ''a myth'' of excessive dependence on the West. That could, he said, end only in adoption of measures incompatible with Poland's basic needs and interests. These were: to increase market acceptance of its exports; and to intensify contacts with the capitalist world and with the world at large - ''not to limit or reduce them to only one area.''

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