Letter from Warsaw; No chocolate, little meat, many voices for change

Sunday morning in the Old Square conveys a deceptively tranquil impression of this nation beset by economic crisis and political uncertainty. The strollers' feet make crunchy sounds in the snow, and, since the square allows no cars, nothing but voices or laughter breaks the silence.

The only vehicle permitted is an ancient cab with a plump, hairy pony and a bewhiskered old driver huddled in leather coat and boots. This Dostoyevskian pair never seem to get a fare. The cabbie wants 600 zlotys (about $20) to drive us back to the hotel, so we walk.

Sundays, the square becomes an art gallery, with scores of students' paintings and sketches leaning against the walls of its old houses.

The warm, vaulted interior of Kamienne Schodki ("Stone Steps") -- Warsaw's only remaining hostelry, which is famed for its only entree, roast duck -- is filled with couples, old and young, talking quietly at little polished-top tables over coffee or tea.

The delicate chime of the gold-faced clock atop the Castle drifts over the rooftops into the square.

The atmosphere seems far removed from the weekday realities of long queues at shops, the lack of almost every consumer item, no matter how basic, and newspaper reports of appalling shortages of farm equipment with spring sowing less than a month away.

The lines at butcher shops are as long as ever. But people are talking less about meat, possibly because imports from east and west are making some small difference. An intricate meat-rationing program is due to begin in April. The biggest queues now are at the candy stores, and the biggest grumble is about the near disappearance of -- chocolate!

Except, that is, from the stores in the big "foreign" hotels, where imported varieties abound -- for hard currency. Most of those buying are Poles.

Many have dollars from families in the United States. But the vast majority do not and chocolate becomes another of those unpleasant, amoral anachronisms of a dual price structure.

Other current shortages, extraordinary in a country so agriculturally rich, are milk and cheese. In cafes and hotels, condensed milk is frequently substituted for fresh. This week, not even the grandiose Intercontinental Hotel could provide native Polish-produced "rokfort."

Powdered detergent has done a disappearing act, though the director of a factory that has met is monthly quota of 12,000 tons since December says the shortage is due to hoarding: "People are buying up any imperishable goods."

Turn to the agricultural news and the full impact of this Polish situation hits home.

The farming crisis has been building for years. Only now, with a more candid government and with editors asserting a new freedom of the press without waiting for the promised legal curbs on censorship, are the facts coming out.

The leading Warsaw daily Zycie Warszawy reported glumly Feb. 24: "The supply of spares for farm machinery has worsened seriously since last spring, when it had seemed it couldn't be worse."

The farmers are waiting for 22,000 tractor crankshafts, but only 8,000 will be available by spring; they need 2 million oil filters, but only 500,000 will be produced in time; 600,000 batteries are required, of which less than half will be available; out of 3 million tires needed, only 1 million will be supplied.

"Unless something more is done," the paper said, "over 500,000 tractors, trailers, and lime and manure spreaders will be in the workshops instead of on fields."

The "new deal" agreement made earlier with the rural union movement (which is actively supported by hundreds of thousands of Poland's 3 1/2 million private peasant farmers) should help.

But the promised changes must first be embodied into law if they are to remove old fears about security of land tenure (officialdom views private farmers as usersm of the land, rather than owners), and they must be demonstrated in better prices and in the promised increases in supplies of farm machinery, fertilizer, building materials, and coal, if they are to encourage the farmers to raise meat production, (now running at 20 percent less than a year ago).

The government is at last recognizing that the plight of agriculture needs instant attention. In an interview in the party newspaper, Poland's minister of agriculture, Jerzy Wojtecki, called 1980 Poland's worst year for farm production in 20 years. But the rest of the economy is not much better off. January's industrial output was 10 percent below that of January 1980, despite the fact that, thanks to strike settlements, wages have risen 20 percent. Coal and fertilizer were both "dangerously" down. Cement plants were closed by an energy shortage.

"If the effects of the strikes are not remedied, work discipline restored, the situation will further deteriorate, and living standards with it," a government spokesman has said. Everyone is reconciled to conditions in March being still worse.

Paradoxically, statistics already show that since Solidarity own the "free Saturdays" concession a month ago, absenteeism on Mondays has risen some 50 percent.

Euphoric predictions of an improved work effort have yet to be fulfilled, mostly because workers -- like farmers -- still have to be convinced the government means what it says about social "renewal" and reform of management.

A reporter for Polityka, a weekly, found one big plant in a bitter, skeptical mood -- not about pay but about poor working conditions and long hours caused by breakdowns in supply. "Give us these [supplies] and we will earn our money all right."

The remark was typical of the reaction from workers. One of the most impressive things about this eight-month crisis is, in fact, the articulate voices emerging from the grass-roots level.

Traveling around the country, visiting industrial centers, reading press reports of the workers' debates going on everywhere, or, better still, watching them on TV, one is aware of a whole nation recovering its voice -- an intelligent, thoughtful one -- that had long been stifled.

It is this new phenomenon, with its consciousness of its own possibilities and its sense of purpose, that the Russians would do well to heed, instead of growing about "antisocialism" within Solidarity's ranks.

Wherever "antisocialism" exists it is extremely insignificant compared with the workers' gut feeling of strength and of their new role as equal partnersm in what, after all, calls itself a workers' regime.

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