Poland: How long will calm last? Strikers are back at work, but their grievances persist

The spectacle of 600 or 700 young workers holding out to the last at the strike-bound Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk points to elements of instability in Poland's future. Officials play down the significance of the strikes, and say the young militants were fired by outside ``subversive'' propaganda to persist in a losing struggle.

But there are aspects of their stubbornness that signal warnings to the Polish government as it uses its newly acquired ``special powers'' to accelerate reform and to forestall further outbreaks of industrial unrest.

One was implicit in the workers' refusal of a management pay offer, mediated by the Roman Catholic Church. ``They made clear,'' says one of the most experienced Western observers in Warsaw, ``they were not to be `bought off' in this way or diverted from what is uppermost in their minds.''

``This,'' he continued, ``is a new generation. They are not concerned with an immediate few thousand zlotys but for their future. For that future they need a perspective, something better, for example, than the present 15 years wait for an apartment.''

``Right now, they perceive no future. The government, whatever the merits of the reform program or General [Wojciech] Jaruzelski's good intentions, still does not arouse confidence that it will now do better than it has done in the last three, lost years.''

``They have nothing to lose, so they can afford to strike. Even [Solidarity leader Lech] Walesa, with all the personal prestige he still has, cannot deter them.''

Momentarily, Poland presents a semblance of calm. The authorities report that the major strike centers - the Lenin Shipyard and the Nowa Huta Steelworks in Krakow - are back to working, though at Gdansk the ``normal'' high absenteeism rate still prevails.

But there is no official effort to disguise the fact that the economy as a whole is in a dreadful state; or that, without fresh Western loans, of which there are no signs, it is hard to see how recovery might begin.

The Polish weekly Odrodzenie (Renewal) recently published startling facts. Although Poland is by far the largest of the European states, it is:

ranked behind all but one of them in industrial and farm output, foreign trade and investment.

the only European country in which real wages fell last year.

ranked next to last in per capita gross national product and non-food commodity consumption, and last in food consumption.

The Odrodzenie report reflected a view among economists that Poland is allocating too much of its hard currency earnings - 29.7 percent - to servicing its massive debts to the West ``on time.''

Last year, new credits from the West totaled a meager $317 million, while Poland paid almost six times as much on its debts.

Poland, the economists say, should worry less about debtor's ``honor,'' but should this year devote at least part of resources earmarked for debt-servicing to Western technology imports. This would stimulate economic growth and promote competitive export potential and thus put the country into a stronger position to pay its loan bills.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund reportedly have some sympathy with the argument. But buying off strikers with pay hikes not backed by improved productivity is incompatible with those institutions' requirements of an intensified reform process and market-oriented efficiency.

A source close to General Jaruzelski described the ending of the strikes and the invoking of emergency powers for faster implementation of reforms as providing ``a crucial chance'' for Poland.

Solidarity's capacity to influence events on a national scale is clearly much diminished. This time it lacked support from the Roman Catholic Church, except in the latter's efforts to mediate and calm things down.

The Vatican, a church source close to the Polish episcopate says, is encouraged by signs from Moscow of a more tolerant attitude towards religion and, the source said, ``We do not wish to prejudice that.''

The church supports the US view that supporting the regime's recovery program is contingent on genuine dialogue with authentic opposition leaders, including Lech Walesa, and on issues like union pluralism.

The church sees three urgent options the authorities must tackle: a place in parliament for independent non-communist, non-party spokesmen; enlargement of the private sector to satisfy pressing consumer needs; and creation of a climate of business confidence for foreign capital.

``We should give the regime a chance,'' the same church source said. ``But if it cannot quickly demonstrate that it does have a bold concept for the future, then, come the fall, anything could happen.''

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