The most fiercely contested battle in Poland's efforts to overcome its crisis is being waged behind the scenes over economic reform. The protagonists are a think tank of realist-minded economists and some of the establishment's most deeply entrenched vested interests.
Most of Poland's leading economists and planning experts, as well as "liberals" within the Communist Party, see bold and far-reaching changes in economic planning and management as offering the only road to recovery for its battered economy.
[Reuters reports that Poland's major Western creditors, meeting in Paris, have agreed to provide urgent short-term aid to help Warsaw deal with massive foreign debts, which total some $23 billion.]
The reformers' ideas for radical decentralization, enterprise and management independence, and incentive-oriented workers' self-management face opposition from the "branch" ministries introduced in 1949 when the present Stalinist system was adopted.
These ministries have rigidly controlled all branches of industry, including iron and steel, mining, machine-building, chemicals, energy, and construction. At first there were 26 of them, but they have been cut back to nine "industrials" and four related ministries.
They constitute a brake on development: They brought the deceptive "boom" of the early 1970s to a disastrous halt.
Within these ministries some 100 industrial associations have their own flocks of special sections. The dismantling of this gigantic conglomerate of industrial self-interest is seen by the reformers as the first prerequisite if the economy is ever to regain its balance.
Prof. Jan Mujzel, director of the Institute of Planning, described them in an interview as immensely powerful organizations "each in itself to be compared in terms of economic power with the biggest monopolies in the West." Each has pressure groups working in the government and through social and political organizations, including the Communist Party, the final arbiter in all economic policy.
Asked what is to be done with them, the professor replied swiftly: "Liquidate them! and as quickly as possible!"
Understandably, the ministries are disinclined to be liquidated.
The reformers want to replace these ministries with a single Ministry of Industry and a ministry (or two) for labor and social policy. These would operate within a flexible national policy, with five-year and one-year plans setting the main course of development. The rest would be left pretty much to individual sectors, enterprises, and managers.
"Above all," says Professor Mujzel, "we need a competitive, demanding market. We must start with the ministries because there we have the greatest resistance to reform."
He says austerities will be "unavoidable" and adds, "Some very painful decisions lie ahead."
These would come in an overhaul of the whole price structure (entailing the removal of the massive subsidies that have kept food prices down) and probably would entail some drop in real earnings.
These, of course, were the two factors that toppled Edward Gierek in 1980. They had almost done so in 1976.
Can the envisioned reform be carried through this time without a similar explosion?
Professor Mujzel believes it can be. "Rationing [of meat, etc., to be introduced April 1] is no solution," he says.
"The existence of Solidarity makes the situation today entirely different from 1976. The government and the party now have a previously nonexistent opportunity. They have a very real chance of a serious dialogue in advance of everything they plan to do, to explain what is possible in our present situation , and to secure society's understanding and cooperation. . . ." A member of both the party and Solidarity, the professor says the government can win public patience for a gradual process spread over three or four years -- provided it takes the nation into its confidence and thereby wins some public trust in its good faith.