Poland faces another bleak year despite some economic gains

As the year ended, Polish youngsters - lighthearted come what may - found a new ''crystal ball'' to look into the future. They held a small stone, tied to a string, so it just touched a hard surface. If the stone spun clockwise when it was lifted, the youths claimed, a wish for the new year would come true. If the stone spun counterclockwise, it wouldn't.

Maybe that is typical Polish tragicomic whimsy. But any mode of prediction for a Polish 1984 - the year George Orwell chose in 1948 for his gloomy fears of anti-democratic things to come - is little better than guesswork.

So much in Poland still goes counterclockwise to all the essentials for overcoming its crisis. The past year - with martial law first suspended and then removed - saw scant movement toward solving the country's problems.

There was a slight upturn in some economic areas. Coal output and export recovery were quite striking, in fact. But that was achieved only when Solidarity gave up ''free Saturdays'' for its workers.

In big factories and in the shipbuilding north, the practice of working to rule remained widespread. A reaction this reporter frequently encountered was: ''The government behaves as though it is paying me. I behave as though I am working . . . (and) do the norm. Why work harder when the money I get buys nothing?''

The government claims the market is stronger than a year ago. Marginally, that is true. But the meagerness of most Poles' purchasing power continues - as does a feeling of hopelessness and skepticism.

''If things are better,'' even the government newspaper Rzeczpospolita asked ironically, ''why is the situation so bad?''

A modest start has been made with the economic reform. Initially it was meant to correct the mismanagement of the 1970s. However, since the imposition of martial law and in the restrictive period that has followed it, economic reform has followed a politically safe course.

Public discontent continues. And fear of public unrest, for example, compelled the government to postpone the food-price increases slated for the new year.

Unabated, albeit silenced, social and political tensions still prevent the further development of necessary reform just as much as the economic situation itself.

It would be eased, obviously, if the West lifted its sanctions. These certainly have ''punished'' Poland - though mainly in the already low living standards of most Poles - but they have achieved none of the political effects the West anticipated and counted on.

Martial law was terminated in July - but under conditions by which Poland is tied ideologically to its Eastern alliance more strictly than at any time since the early 1950s.

Economically, its involvement with the Soviet Union and Comecon, the East bloc's trading community, has risen from 40 percent of its foreign trade in the 1970s to 63 percent in the past year.

And the conditions attached to this increased trade will make it extremely difficult for Poland to implement the kind of economic reform Western traders would like.

It is within this increasingly cramped context that the ''moderate'' government of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski still must operate in 1984. An alternative would be hard-line communist solutions, liquidating even the truncated reform program that replaced the Solidarity dream.

Last year must be seen, however regretfully, as the end of the Solidarity era. Calls for popular protest from the underground union met with less and less response - and finally went unheeded on Dec. 16.

The end had seemed implicit last June, when the Pope visited. At that time, there was no question whether the Communist authorities or the Roman Catholic Church would come out on top.

The government and church have common interests as well as widely differing ones. Each wanted to create an atmosphere conducive to national consensus and economic recovery. And to some extent, the prospects for these did seem to improve.

But neither state nor church leadership was able to build on the opportunity the Pope's visit offered.

The regime saw the church as moving too far into politics, with its open support for detained dissidents and forthright identification with popular outcry against the proposal to increase prices.

Cooperation, the episcopate was tartly reminded, depended on stricter observation of the ''Render unto Caesar . . .'' principle - i.e., that the church is separate and should not intrude in state affairs.

The church itself has lacked the statesmanlike authority of the Wyszynski period, when the late cardinal accepted temporary unpopularity even with the Solidarity faithful by keeping his dialogue with the authorities going. He felt dialogue was the only safe way to maintain the church's unique position and bring domestic peace to the nation.

Dialogue will probably be more essential in 1984. The goverment has no magic wand with which to lessen public discontent. But it might help to be more liberal - and therefore more convincing - than it has been of late. Its recent draft for a new election law, for example, and its cavalier disregard of the passport issue, which is so sensitive a matter, particularly among young people, has done nothing to endear the government to the public.

The church, for its part, has more to gain than lose by curbing the open political militancy of some of its lesser clerics as Cardinal Wyszynski undoubtedly would have done.

Though Solidarity is out of the picture, Lech Walesa is not necessarily eclipsed, for all the goverment's harsh dismissal of him or his own recent waverings.

The new official unions now count 3.7 million workers, about as many as the pre-1980 rubberstamp organizations. Some 5 to 6 million workers still hold back.

That is a disaster for the government, and ultimately General Jaruzelski may conclude that only Walesa can persuade the workers to test the prime minister's pledge that these unions are to be authentic partners with a voice in all legitimate union affairs.

But what Poland needs most is consensus among ordinary Poles. The point was aptly urged recently by a well-known contributor to the weekly Polityka.

Poles, he said, are a nation, but not yet a society. ''They are,'' he wrote, ''a nation in their fidelity to its colors and symbols. . . .''

(It is still remarkable to this reporter how many gather each Sunday, winter and summer, to watch the Army's weekly parade to Warsaw's main military memorial.)

''But Poles,'' the commentator went on, ''are not a society (with the) ability to get together and coexist, to find compromise in the entangled interests of different groups and in sober evaluation of their national emotions.''

Polish history has enough tragic examples of this. And 1984 could provide another.

It may also prove a year of drift and stagnation - with even worse political consequences.

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