Warsaw — MIROSLAW is a millionaire. Early each morning, he steers his fancy black Mercedes into the Ochota Market on the outskirts of Warsaw. Crowds of buyers gather around as he opens his trunk and displays his valuable merchandise -- bunch after bunch of bright-colored flowers.
Poles are flower crazy. They offer carnations or roses at almost every occasion. They use flowers to thank the butcher for selecting good meat, to flatter the teacher before an exam, to thank the priest for his sermon.
What makes the flower business special here is that, for the most part, it is privately run. Apart from fruits and vegetables, which also are privately marketed, flowers remain just about the only major industry not dominated by the state in this communist country. While other private Polish farmers receive state-regulated prices for their products, the estimated 30,000 private flower growers sell at any price the market will stand.
The arrangement assures abundant supplies. Between 1980 and 1982, when most store shelves were practically bare in Poland, the extensive network of private flower shops stayed well stocked.
``We're a world power in flowers,'' boasts government spokesman Jerzy Urban with just a tinge of irony in his voice. ``It's an example of the type of industry which has developed nicely.''
But success comes at a high cost. Because the Polish economy is such an inefficient, rusty engine, the country's best talent heads toward the few available opportunities to make money. Often that means growing flowers.
Outside of other small private enterprises, such as establishing clothing factories in their homes, flowers are one of the few ways in which Poles can become millionaires -- in zlotys, not dollars, of course. (There are 150 zlotys to the dollar.) Nevertheless flower sellers make a fortune by Polish standards.
Take Miroslaw. He has a master's degree in math from prestigious Copernicus University in Torun, Poland. He considered becoming a professor, but that pays only about $60 a month. So he took a job in a factory, where he earned $80 a month -- and felt very frustrated.
``Here I was, an ambitious man, and I felt like I was wasting my time,'' Miroslaw says. ``I couldn't even make ends meet.'' Then his parents offered him and his two brothers a 4,300-square-foot garden which they had used to grow vegetables. They changed the crop to flowers and soon saved enough to invest in a greenhouse. During peak periods, they hire up to a dozen workers.
Miroslaw's profits average $333 to $400 a month. He vacations in Greece and Italy. In Poland, he has built his own house. He has a stereo and, of course, his Mercedes.
Nurturing a pretty blossom hasn't always meant big money. Before the war, Poland was a predominantly rural society and most Poles owned their own gardens, says Andrzej Mrowczynski, director of agricultural cooperatives. ``When you visited your cousin, you'd just go out in your backyard and snip a few flowers,'' he says. ``Only the elite gentry would buy a bouquet.''
After the war, masses of peasants moved to the cities. Mr. Mrowczynski believes flowers then became a way ``to guard a contact with nature.'' As the working class's purchasing power grew during the 1970s, flower sales boomed. Mrowczynski says Poland now produces some 500 million flowers per year, by far the most of any East bloc country.
The industry's rapid growth tempted the state to intervene. State farms began producing flowers and state florists were established. The state stores offer prices 20 to 30 percent below those charged by private shops. But their supplies are irregular, and the quality is inferior: A visit to one revealed half-bare shelves and wilted roses.
When the economy hit hard times in 1980, though, Mrowczynski admits that the state considered becoming more aggressive against the private flower sellers, who could, after all, be seen as wasting valuable resources to produce a luxury good. If vegetables were in short supply, why not make the flower growers switch their production to these necessities? In the end, though, the government decided it needed the flower growers. Flowers keep morale up. Even the Communist Party has its own flower -- the gozdik -- a bouquet of which is given to party workers at every possible occasion.
There were also economic reasons for leaving the flower industry alone. Mrowczynski notes that ``people spent so much money on flowers that it helped keep inflation down.''
Today, government officials even praise the flower growers as an example of efficiency for Polish industry. Poland recently launched a series of economic reforms that favor private enterprises, permitting them to employ up to 200 workers.
Flower growers remain unconvinced. Their major complaint concerns taxes. Levies on flower growers, as well as other private businessmen, reach 75 percent of gross earnings. Mr. Sadowski justifies this figure, saying, ``The number of private businessmen is going up so the taxes can't be too high.''
Still, Miroslaw says, ``They want to strangle me.''
He and other flower growers have other complaints. To keep the quality of their blossoms high, they say they need to import seeds from the Netherlands. This requires hard currency, which is difficult to get in Poland. One solution would be to export their products. But that means working through a state agency -- a taboo for people who pin their prosperity on avoiding state control.
``No way,'' says Bogdan, one of Miroslaw's colleagues.
In any case, Mrowczynski says Polish flowers are not of a high enough quality to compete with Dutch products. He explains that most of the 30 million flowers Poland exports annually are sold to the Soviet Union.
Left only with the home market, Polish flower producers express some fears of being squeezed. Sales have dropped this year, says Bozena, who owns a private shop. Flowers have become expensive, often reaching $4 a bouquet, an enormous sum in a country where the average monthly salary is around $133 a month.
Miroslaw has also noticed the downturn. ``I'm working 12 to 14 hours a day, much harder than the state worker and now my profit isn't even sure anymore,'' he complains. But he insists he won't give up. Sounding like any good capitalist, he concludes, ``Risk is part of business, isn't it?''