Poland tries to soft-sell its dissenters into cooperating

The reshuffled, four-month-old Polish government is using a soft-sell approach to win public sympathy for its efforts to cope with the country's economic difficulties and social unease.

Poland's "winter of discontent" among consumers as well as intellectuals has stretched on into summer. And Prime Minister Edward Babiuch now seems determined to try to end it.

In this context, the mild punishment meted out to four young Poles charged with illegal publishing is not altogether surprising. Their arrest in March had caused a storm of protest among Polish and foreign writers, forcing their release prior to a June 12 court appearance on largely technical charges.

At the same time, Prime Minister Babiuch is taking a cautious approach to the ever-explosive issue of reducing the subsidies that have kept food prices low. He is even getting parliament into the act -- by allowing debate instead of expecting parliament merely to approve government pronouncements.

The 18-month suspended sentences given Miroslaw Chojecki, founder of an underground press, and an assistant seem an obvious conciliatory gesture to the intellectual community with which the Gierek regime has been at odds for the past four years. The two printers accused of selling them a mimeograph machine were given 12-month suspended sentences.

Neither the Polish state's monopoly of printing and publishing, nor its apparatus for censorship, will be changed. But the regime now may show more heed of the circumstances that have led to so much clandestine publishing activity.

Dissidents like Mr. Chojecki have filled notable gaps in the availability of literature to the public. In the past few years he has brought out 90 forbidden titles by Polish authors as well as by foreign writers such as George Orwell and Gunther Grass. He did so, he said in court, to "preserve national culture and knowledge of history in a nation whom censorship deprives of perspective."

The outcome of this trial is not the only recent hint of a potentially more liberal turn in Polish politics.

Prime Minister Babiuch took over in February from a government bitterly identified with an unimaginative official response to acute consumer hardship. The former government was also associated in the minds of most Poles with the severely punitive reactions to the riots that broke out when steep hikes of food prices were proposed in 1976.

Only six years earlier, widespread rioting over a similar move swept the regime of Wladislaw Gomulka from office. His successor Edward Gierek survived by only a squeak in 1976; but his round of price hikes was canceled.

Now Mr. Gierek's new prime minister is tackling much the same problem.

Yearly, the Polish treasury pours out massive subsidies to keep food prices at the level of a decade or more ago. Poles have thus been accustome to cheap food. Amid all their other frustrations, they become almost paranoid about any move to raise prices, especially for meat.

A two-tier market system has only stoked public resentment. It provides more and better meat at much higher prices. But, as one newspaper recently noted, it is the higher income groups -- mostly confined to the ruling establishment -- that reap the benefits of 90 percent of the subsidies, not the poor they were intended to help. Most working housewives must stand in mile-long queues for inferior cuts that are often sold out by the time they reach the head of the line.

Now a panel of party and nonparty experts, which last year produced a telling analysis of Poland's economic and political needs, has brought out another report. The government promptly pigeonholed last year's report. But this new one may receive more attention.

Mr. Babiuch is trying hard to put across a common-sense view of the national need for saving, austerity, and "socially justified" prices based on costs.

While there is a momentary slowdown in the church-state peace process begun by Pope John Paul II's visit last summer, there nonetheless are signs that the regime may be realizing that more liberal attitudes are essential if it is to gain any credibility for its appeals for austerity and greater productivity.

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