Poles Try the Free Market, and It Fits
But perils persist: Economic growth has been uneven and the political situation remains `delicate'
CONSIDER the Polish potato chip.Skip to next paragraph
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Available in barbecue, bacon, or plain salted flavor, and packaged in a shiny red and yellow cellophane bag, it could easily be mistaken for a Western import.
The same could be said about the Polish television set, which contestants can win on Poland's own version of "Wheel of Fortune," the American game show. Sleek, compact, and equipped with remote control and stereo sound, it could be a Sony. But - surprise! - it's produced by Elemis, a state-owned company in Warsaw on its way to privatization.
Polish entrepreneurs - and even state-run businesses - have shown an uncanny ability to adjust quickly to free-market conditions and give consumers products they want. It's this flexibility, and the government's adherence to economic reforms, that make Poland the first country in Eastern Europe to emerge from severe post-communist recession.
Largely without the help of foreign investors, the Poles last year boosted industrial production by 4 percent (it plummeted 24 percent in 1990). Inflation is on a downward trend. Still high at a targeted 32 percent for this year, it is a lot better than three years ago, when it galloped along at nearly 600 percent.
The private sector, meanwhile, has advanced beyond the stage of sidewalk kiosks and hot dog stands, although there are still plenty of those. More than half of working Poles now have jobs in the private sector, a strong incentive for them to make sure capitalism succeeds.
As far as private enterprise goes, "this country is more advanced than any in the region," says Henryk Szlajfer of the Polish Institute of International Affairs.
But like everyday life in Poland, in which BMWs speed past fields still plowed by horses, the economic and political scene is a dichotomy of positive and negative trends.
Reformers trying to move the country forward are often undermined by those who yearn for the way things were.
As one longtime observer of the country remarks, "Poland is striding boldly forward on a banana peel."
Economic growth, for instance, is highly uneven. Blossoming cities like Warsaw, Poznan, and Krakow are blessed with unemployment rates of 5 percent to 9 percent, while agricultural regions and one-industry towns suffer jobless rates of 20 percent and higher. A severe housing shortage prevents movement of labor from depressed areas to prosperous ones.
The story of contrasts repeats itself in the political arena. For the first time since the demise of communism four years ago, Poland has enjoyed a small degree of political stability, personified in Prime Minister Hanna Suchocka (pronounced Su-HOTS-ka).
Appointed last July, she enjoys the confidence of more than 75 percent of the population, according to opinion polls.
But her job is not easy. She's juggling a minority, multiparty coalition government and is up against a fractious Sejm (parliament) consisting of more than 20 parties. Still, Prime Minister Suchocka has been able to withstand two severe labor strikes, and by relying on compromise, has pushed through the Sejm a much-needed "small constitution" that defines the balance of power in government, an austerity budget, and a long-awaited mass privatization plan.
In a Monitor interview this month, Suchocka said that Poland has turned the corner, but described the overall situation as "very delicate." Populist pressure is being exerted on the government, she warned, and "one false move may make us roll back."
That "false move" may be the Solidarity trade union's push for a vote of no confidence in the government, set to be debated in the Sejm May 27. The union is demanding higher wages for teachers and health workers, but the government says there is simply no money in the budget for such increases.
Anything could happen in the Sejm. The prime minister could fall, be asked to lead a caretaker government until early elections
are called, or survive the test. Although observers rule out a return to communist days, they warn that a new government could turn protectionist or pursue an inflationary monetary policy to meet higher wage demands. Attacking budget cuts