Warsaw — In the 18 months since this writer's last visit here, Poland has not made meaningful progress toward recovery from the crisis years since 1980. It still is far from regaining even the living standards and economic advance of the late 1970s. And politically, domestic conciliation is still elusive.
Some industrial sectors show improvement, but productivity does not. Capacity is rarely more than 60 percent used. Agriculture notched up a record grain harvest in 1986, but overall it, too, is another story of wasted resources.
The lines at food shops of a year or so back are mostly gone. There are only occasional shortages.
``But getting just what you want, when you need it, is always unpredictable, and quality is still usually poor,'' says a relatively well-off friend. ``My wife and I have become compulsive buyers. We take many things which suddenly show up, even though we don't just then need them, simply because we cannot be sure they will be there when we do.''
These are problems that are uppermost in the minds of a big majority of Poles. Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's well-intentioned words about reform and its promise of better times fall for the most part on disbelieving ears.
Many credit him with sincerity. But they also are aware of the vested interests he has to overcome: those who prefer the status quo to a reform that, if effectively carried through, would put an end to their privileges.
Poland faces other major problems: its huge foreign debts and the West's continued caution about granting fresh credits that more than anything could help the nation out of its present impasse. With its options thus limited, Poland is increasingly looking eastward.
Meanwhile, Pope John Paul II's visit is only a week away. The government will be looking to him to urge Poles to show more confidence in the reform and to work conscientiously in the national interest. The government seems ready, in return, to grant concessions to the Roman Catholic Church's place in Polish society and affairs generally.
For it is not only the crippling legacy of the old Stalinist centralized management and the misplaced investment of the 1970s that are holding the economy back. It is even more the continued failure of the regime to persuade more Poles to put trust in the government's present programs - for example, by conceding them greater political freedoms.
The current public mood, confirmed often enough by the general's own opinion sampling institute, raises doubt about whether even renewed papal exhortations next month will have any long-lasting effect in the absence of the prospect of political and economic reform. Much of the responsibility, therefore, falls on the authorities themselves.
But of great concern is a recently intensified harassment of the ``opposition.'' ``The amnesty last summer [of Poland's 225 remaining political prisoners] promised well for `normalization,''' says a United States official. ``But there has been little substantive encouragement since. Instead, since the amnesty cannot be reversed and people put back inside, the police seem out to make life as uncomfortable as they can for the active dissidents.''
Intellectuals who support the now-banned Solidarity trade union are no longer ``activists'' themselves, but part of a highly critical opposition. ``You can talk openly about anything,'' says a once-prominent columnist who lost his job under martial law (1981-83), ``but you cannot do anything about it, unless you wish to court trouble. So people acquiesce. They are too tired for more.''
Government aides insist that much of this is unfair. One is told there are two fields of opposition: the ``constructive'' opposition, which is welcome, and the ``destructive'' opposition - including the active Solidarity remnant - which the government says has no program but to oppose whatever the government proposes.
There is something to the latter argument. Tolerance is not a strong political characteristic on either side. General Jaruzelski would like to widen public ``consultation.'' Half of his personally selected consultative council is noncommunist; he is to appoint an ombudsman as a watchdog over citizens rights; and the new unions are beginning to be militant on economic issues.
But it is still difficult to find an ordinary Pole who does not not regard it all with resigned and profound skepticism.
What thwarts real change, longtime observers here say, is a 1-million-strong, highly conservative bureaucracy. ``They show an arrogant `we can do what we like' attitude towards people,'' one said. ``They have a big stake in the system not performing better and are therefore out to preserve the status quo.''
Jaruzelski himself admits that reform so far has been ``a half-hearted undertaking'' and that breaking down the central command system defended by the dogmatists is a ``sluggish'' process.
And neither the outlook for Poland, nor his government's credibility, are going to improve until he can alter that.