Polish party task: explaining 'villas' in era of scarcity

The Polish Communist Party is in the throes of a deep crisis of confidence -- and knows it. It concerns not only the accumulated faults of economic management and restrictive political attitudes brought to a head this summer, but also deeply moral issues.

They raise serious questions about the essential social justices that the party by tradition and classic definition is committed to. Even some dedicated party members admit reufully, almost despairingly, that the party's old image is sadly tarnished.

The questions go beyond the issues of immediate reforms already pledged on wages, the right to strike, and independent unions.

From the start, damage has been done by the communist establishment's privileges. They have been increasingly resented by the ordinary Polish consumer during prolonged years of stringency.

Feeling were further aggravated by the more recent corruption among senior officials and others well placed who availed themselves of opportunities for personal enrichment presented by a developing economy and modern society.

This more naked corruption -- and seeming official complacency about it -- has induced widespread cynicism. The mood is no more healthy for society than for the party, which must be held mainly responsible because it has all the essential power.

The chairman of the State Planning Commission, Henryk Kisiel, described Sept. 8 the structural changes to be made in economic planning and management.

He outlined also the package of relief for low-income people -- even with additions still scarcely above subsistence levels -- and indicated that changes in the tax system will be made to reduce the gap between rich and poor. Over the past decade the gap has assumed glaring proportions in a supposedly classless society.

Much higher taxes, he said, will have to be paid in the future by people with "big cars, villas, and swimming pools -- those whose incomes are so high that people feel social justice is undermined in Poland." "Such a situation," Mr. Kisiel added with emphasis, "does exist in Poland today."

Candor is being exhibited by all the leading figures of state and party now. But the frankness has done little thus far to reduce the average Pole's skepticism or persuade him that something might really change at last.

A few days ago during Parliament's searching debate on the government program , one MP spoke out sharply about the inadequacies of the state medicare system and the gross underpayment of people who work in it.

"How," he demanded, "does the government reconcile the average health service salary of 3,400 zlotys [about $113] with the high incomes of some dignitaries with their villas, big cars, and even yachts and Mediterranean residences?"

Everyone understood the speaker's exotic life-style illusions because it had just been disclosed that extensive corruption charges against the former chief of Polish radio and television, Maciej Szczepanski, were to be investigated by a party commission.

Mr. Szczepanski lost his job in the Aug. 24 purge ostensibly as the man responsible for false "success propaganda" concealing the real facts of the worsening economic situation. He was also seen as responsible for the stifling censorship now acknowledged to have done as much as anything to fuel the present crisis and the near-universal rejection of the party.

News of the investigation seemed merely to confirm what every Pole apparently had "known" for the past year. If only half the allegations are born out, his life style would still seem to have achieved a unique optimum in almost Byzantine extravagance and, allegedly, criminal venality.

That remains to be seen. His downfall, however, evoked little more than a public shrug.

"Why wasn't something done before?" one hard-working, family man asked. "We have all known for a long time what was going on. Can we believe the government alone did not know?"

There is a distressing public acceptance of the idea that he who uses official rank or access to public funds to acquire a fancy house or automobile is only doing "what everyone would do, given the chance."

"It's normal," people tell you with an almost pitying smile at your naivete. It is a sign also of the malaise this largest of the East European communist states -- still one of the two with something "liberal" in its complexion -- is passing.

For many party members, Mr. Szczepanski's downfall was welcome. But the circumstances surrounding it proved another heavy blow for a party that, as one remarked to this writer, has been reduced to a state of "shock" that will take a long and difficult time to recover from.

In the end it also affected the image of former party leader Edward Gierek. He had told the party congress last February that a general inquiry into privilege and corruption would be instituted.

Little or nothing apparently was done about it -- until this final crisis. Inevitably the delay sparked talk of a "cover-up" -- particularly of the Szczepanski case. Although Mr. Gierek's own reputation was never questioned, some of the public reaction finally rubbed off on him since he was the party leader.

There has been no direct criticism yet of his leadership. But less than a week after his replacement, the "Gierek decade" is losing some of its initial luster. The man who took over in the bloody crisis of December 1970 is also being held accountable for the decline that set in from 1976.

The main criticism against him seems to be that he stuck stubbornly to policies that brought success in the first few years, but later were at odds with economic reality in a country increasingly feeling the effects of world recession.

In the last few days before his removal, much of the party's present plight was being laid behind the scenes at his door.

All this is obviously being felt by his successor, Stanislaw Kania, as he embarks on the uphill task of regaining the party's lost confidence with itself and nation.

Even as he does, the "rogue" strikes continue. There is still no general public conviction that the reforms won by the Baltic coast workers and the miners in the south will be applied on a national scale without prodding.

Surprisingly, neither Mr. Kania nor the new prime minister has done more than imply that this is so. Neither has gone on radio and television to give the country an unequivocal declaration that the reforms are "meant for everyone, so you don't have to worry or strike anymore."

The result: New stoppages are popping up all over Poland in transport systems or individual plants. In many cases the sole demand is that a government representative sign an agreement.

Meantime, production losses accrue. And Polish media reports from those areas where strikes were settled some time ago say "discussion" still goes on in the factories. That means the talk of "extra work time" to catch up is still far from reality.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.