Warsaw — Mila went to the supermarket to buy sugar. There was none left. ``The sales girl said, `Come back tomorrow and try,''' she explained. ```People are hoarding.'''
The hoarding was sparked by imminent price increases. Over the weekend, the Polish authorities confirmed there would be drastic price increases early next year if Poles approved a Nov. 29 referendum. These rises are a condition for a dramatic plan of economic reform.
``What we are planning is a second revolution,'' Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski told a small group of journalists, including this correspondent, on Friday. ``They are changes so deep, so significant, because there is no other way to make the system work effectively.''
In an official poll released late last week, two-thirds of the population termed the proposed referendum and reform as ``difficult to judge,'' ``unimportant,'' or ``important but too late.''
Daily life is too pressing, too hard, for the bulk of the Polish people. People are tired of the never-ending search to obtain their basic necessities. In the cold winter that already has set in, shivering in line is just one more burden. When asked about the price increases and reform, ordinary Poles resort to acid skepticism.
``It's all one big joke,'' judges Anna, a young mother who often finds it hard to obtain the necessary milk for her year-old son. ``After all this time treating us like children, why should things now change?''
Two things make the government believe it can conquer this despair. The first is Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. When General Jaruzelski first attempted reform, he was held back by the immobilism of then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. But under Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika, the light from Moscow is green.
The second major change is the country's internal situation. In 1981, Poland was still traumatized by martial law and the destruction of the independent trade union Solidarity.
Today, the government is proposing to balance its stiff economic medicine with a dose of pleasant political liberalism. Instead of the old slogan ``Everything is forbidden which is not permitted,'' the authorities now spout a new line, ``Everything not forbidden is permitted.''
Specific reforms will be announced after the Communist Party Central Committee's ideological plenum next week.
Officials suggest measures will include limiting censorship, ensuring the right to form political clubs, and the establishment of free, multi-candidate elections for local town councils. And voters will have the chance to voice their opinions on the reforms in the coming referendum.
In a country that rations meat and gas, and where many goods remain hard to find even in the best of times, price reform is needed to bring supply and demand into sync. Once it is accomplished, officials say, it will be possible to introduce widespread market mechanisms, letting private enterprise expand, permitting companies to go bankrupt, and persuading the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to grant crucial relief on Poland's $36 billion debt.
But the changes are risky. In 1970, 1976, and 1980, price rises sparked worker uprisings. Since 1981, the goverment has kept trying to raise prices and introduce reform, only to face a recalcitrant bureaucracy and worker pressure. Every price hike was offset by an increase in wages. The government says only the worst off will now be compensated.
``When we tried to reform in the past, we weren't able to be consistent,'' says Zdzislaw Sadowski, deputy prime minister and architect of the economic reforms. ``Now we have a convergence of ideas among socialist countries - that's very important - and we are accompanying the economic reforms with political reforms.''
Against this double-barreled barrage, effective opposition is hard to muster. Leaders of the banned Solidarity have long called for economic changes along the lines now suggested by the government. They hope expanded free enterprise, combined with the decentralization of economic and political decisionmaking, will eat away at the communists' power.
``Freely elected town authorities, new political clubs - these could eventually be expanded to freely elected local district authorities and political parties,'' says Janusz Onyszkiewicz, Solidarity's spokesman. ``A lengthy process of democratization could be unlocked.''
But Solidarity cannot bring itself to support Jaruzelski. The general, after all, is not offering what it most wants - trade union pluralism and the restoration of Solidarity. Solidarity's leaders fear that price rises mixed with increased freedom of expression constitute a plan to divide intellectuals from workers, the trade union's unique force.
``How many times have I heard it, `You intellectuals, you'll abandon us,''' says Bronislaw Geremek, a historian and adviser to union leader Lech Walesa. ``All the concessions are going to the intellectuals. There's nothing for the workers.''
For Solidarity, there is no real choice. If the referendum is not approved, Jaruzelski says he will not step down from power. He will go ahead with economic reform and the price increases - only a little slower. No wonder Solidarity leaders, realizing the necessity of higher prices but feeling that they are not being offered anything in return, dismiss the referendum.
``We're not calling for a boycott,'' explains Mr. Geremek. ``We're just saying ignore it.''
The atmosphere meanwhile grows morose. Tired by the present, concerned about the future, everyone recognizes that these price increases are a decisive moment for the country - from Mila hoarding sugar, to Jaruzelski charting a path toward reform, to Geremek outlining Solidarity's future.
``We had hoped that this could be a moment of great spiritual renewal,'' Geremek concludes. ``Instead it is a moment of great fear.''