Poles told the 'boom' is over

Communist Party leader Edward Gierek has told the Poles they have to work harder and drink less if the country is to be raised from its present economic stagnation.

They were bold words. But with a national mood of deep political as well as economic discontent over the last decade, the response could be unpredictable.

Mr. Gierek made his plea as he opened the party congress in Warsaw Monday, Feb. 11, in a speech that undoubtedly was the most somber heard on such an occasion in Poland or elsewhere in Eastern Europe since the industrial development of the new communist states began after World War II.

For Poland, 1979 was the first year of negative growth since the early 1950s. The foreseeable future, as Mr. Gierek presented it, will be one of almost unrelieved gloom.

The early 1970s, he said, had seen considerable achievements in terms of improved living standards and real wages, health and education, as well as industrial advance.

But he added bluntly that, though escalating world costs of fuel and raw materials had brought the "boom" years to a halt, serious native shortcomings and inefficiency at all levels -- planning, management, and ordinary work performance -- had contributed greatly to worsening Poland's economic situation.

With hard-currency indebtedness standing at nearly $18 billion at present -- and expected to rise another $6 billion this year -- Mr. Gierek indicated that 1980 is the year the borrowing has got to stop. Investment, already virtually frozen last year, will have to be heavily curtailed through the next decade.

In a rare reference that underlined the gravity of Poland's most serious social problem, Mr. Gierek turned to alcoholism and equated it with the absenteeism and general labor indiscipline that cost the country millions of hours annually. In terms of products and workmanship alcoholism contributed to considerable financial losses.

He also warned that unless the economy is pulled around by a conscientious nationwide effort, it could threaten one of the golden rules written into the party's basic program.

That is the "full employment" which is the communist bloc's ideological claim to a "superiority" over the capitalist countries' free enterprise system and the unemployment that goes along with it.

He gave notice also that the government will have to face up to the sensitive question of relieving the budget of the massive subsidy burden that ensures cheap food.

Twice in the last 10 years this political hot potato has rocked the regime in Poland. In 1970, proposals to raise food prices brought down the Gomulka government. The same thing almost happened to Mr. Gierek when he made a similar move in 1976.

Apparently he plans to try again, for he gave no assurance for the future except that the prices of staple products would be "kept down for the lower paid."

It was, as anticipated, an exceedingly disappointing speech for the party's "liberals."

Visitors to the congress include Mikhail Suslov, the Kremlin's ideological "eminence grise" since Stalin's day. He is attending as the Soviet party's delegate, presumably to relieve President Brezhnev both for health reasons and because of his Afghanistan preoccupations.

But the presence of this veteran doctrinaire Stalinist is a chilling symbol for the "liberals," who have sought to swing their party to major reforms as the only way out of the country's present economic and social impasse.

Mr. Gierek scotched any such hopes by saying that, although structural changes in the economy are necessary, policies and essential strategy will continue as before.

There was no hint that Poland might test either the more flexible "market" management and enterprise independence or the working incentives its ally Hungary is applying with evident success to overcome very similar difficulties.

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