Poland is calmer, but will West keep its economy afloat?

With comparative calm settling over Poland, the West is faced with the crucial question of what if anything to do to help the country out of its present economic morass.

The United States and its Western allies are scheduled to meet in Paris next weeks to discuss this very issue.

Poland already owes Western governments and banks some $23 billion. (The US share is 13 percent, 10 percent lent by banks and 3 percent by the government.)

It can be argued that further aid should be extended to make it easier for the country to cope with its debts, if only to hold it back from a final step into economic collapse.

But, in addition to financial uncertainties, there are political and diplomatic aspects to the Polish crisis that make the West think twice before, as one American official put it, "taking the risk of pouring money down a mud hole."

These include the fear that continued political uncertainty here might make the Soviet Union feel constrained to intervene after all.

A cautious estimate, a week after the new government came in, is that it doesm seem to have sparked some sense of greater purpose throughout the country. The political and diplomatic factors may therefore weigh just a little less heavily on potential Western aid donors.

The economic doubts, however, are undiminished. These concern a national income down 4 percent last year (after 1979 fell 2 percent below 1978), a massive trade deficit, and disastrous production losses incurred during eight months of strikes.

These hardly make Poland an attractive object for further investment, though it does have some potential. Poles point to vast mineral resources still untapped beneath their soil and stress that Poland has never reneged on its debts.

The West's next problem is howm it can help. Poland rates as an industrial country, not a developing one. Some economic commentators here have suggested it would do better to classify itself as the latter; it could then qualify for the kind of Western aid open to developing countries around the world.

Two other communist states -- Romania, a Soviet-bloc member like Poland, and independent, nonaligned Yugoslavia -- have already done so. Both of them belong to the International Monetary Fund. Yugoslavia, in fact, has just received the largest IMF loan ever channeled to a developing country.

The IMF would seem an obvious option for Poland. But, although its economists have given that possibility much serious thought lately, the government does not seem ready to take such a novel step at this particularly difficult juncture.

It is one thing for Romania, the tolerated maverick of the bloc, to affiliate itself with the World Bank. It would be very different if Poland -- in its key geopolitical position -- were to get too much out of line with Soviet-bloc orthodox and conformity. The present Polish crisis is quite enough.

Another puzzle for the West is how to assist without embarrassing the Poles. Moscow already is accusing the US and others of interfering in Poland's affairs and of planning to make fresh credits conditional on its effecting internal economic reforms.

It is true that, given Poland's present plight, the West is reluctant to extend new, unqualified aid.

That does not mean it would attach specific conditions to any aid it decided to offer. Yet the donors will probably be able to indicate, without offending the Poles, that reforms making the economy work more efficiently would obviously give Western banks as well as governments more confidence in the situation. Or the West might possibly take the Poles at their word when they say big things are going to be done for agriculture, and specify that fresh aid be used in that area.

Years ago, when the US, Britain, and France were involved in a joint aid program to Yugoslavia, some of it was earmarked for agriculture and other areas the experts judged essential to recovery. More recently Yugoslavia (whose nonstate, individual sector provides 80 percent of agricultural production, as it does in Poland) has received considerable World Bank financial support targetted specifically for the private farmers. Belgrade has accepted the aid, and with remarkably good results.

If the new Polish government, which has a more pragmatic look than its predecessor, were to approve some such approach, it would do much to convey the kind of "assurance" of political stability the West would like to see. The new Polish prime minister, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, has set the achievement of such stability as a top priority.

Meanwhile, anything like the $3 billion the Poles requested unsuccessfully of the Carter administration last year is quite out of the question. Next week's meeting in Paris will probably do no more than consider some further financing or rescheduling to help Poland meet its existing debts and to work out a package of short-term, immediate aid. Anything more substantial must wait three to six months, when the outlook here might be clearer.

"It's a matter of 'first aid,' or emergency assistance really," a Western diplomat said, "until more is known of just how the Poles are going about [ solving] their problems. So far we have only a bare outline, no details, of what they have in mind."

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