US banks deal Poles' hand-to-mouth economy a fresh blow

Already living in a desperate hand-to-mouth economy, Poles have just been given another unwelcome shock. United States banks, which have put up some of Poland's now gigantic $26 billion debt, have declined for the moment to reschedule the payments due this year.

This, in turn, comes just after Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski presented parliament with what must be the gloomiest report yet on the country's economic outlook.

Poland, he indicated last week, has reached the point where there are more and more days on which there simply is no money at the bank to pay for food, medicines, and other basic import priorities. The government commission that sets these priorities is in permanent session, desperately grappling with a swift day-to-day deterioration in all necessary supplies.

The situation is so bleak that there is no margin whatever left for even a modest repayment on the country's debts to Western governments and banks.

The governments recently reached accord with the Polish regime, allowing it to postpone until 1986 repayment of interest and principal due this year to 15 creditor countries -- with repayment thereafter spread over 4 years. The government here was considerably heartened by this move, even though it was to a large extent contingent on the Western banks -- creditors for more than half the total debts -- following suit.

News June 16 that the US banks have declined to do so came as a dampening blow to a government currently facing the most serious political challlenge to its credibility and survival against an economic background that could scarcely be worse.

That the US banks have not yet actually refused to accommodate the Poles but have rather suspendedm a final decision until they feel better assured of Poland's economic future is of scant comfort. "Time is precious -- and scarcer every day," an official said.

Nor is the fact that the banks are, in taking this cautionary decision, the "odd man out" among the Western banks as a whole -- and standing well behind West Germany, for example, in the amount of money owed them by the Poles.

The West European banks are more inclined to help along the line taken by their governments. This may produce considerable conflict when they all meet again to review the Polish dilemma toward the end of this month.

The American bankers' position, however, is that they are not ready for rescheduling just now. In their view, the authorities here have not yet produced a program sufficiently convincing to creditors that Poland is able to extricate itself from its crisis.

In the country's political condition today it is perhaps understandable that the decisions on meaningful economic reform drag on so long. But sometimes time for "diskusja" seems the one thing not in short supply. Even sympathetic observers comment that Poles do not seem too aware that they must be seen really doing something themselves.

"The banks," a knowledgeable American source says, "do not want to commit themselves or new funds until they have a clear idea of the reform and how Poland is someday going to be able to repay anything."

This is not US government policy. The Reagan administration was a party to the relief accorded the Poles in the recent Paris agreement. But its efforts to persuade the American banks to be cooperative, too, apparently have failed. And the Poles -- though aware of the position taken by most West European banks -- seem inclined to fear that the Europeans may take fright and follow suit.

Earlier this year, the US government authorized deliveries of 30,000 tons of dried milk and 20,000 tons of butter (a three-week supply) payable in zlotys, pending action by the banks and, it was hoped, a coordinated Western plan to help Poland.

TO the Poles, this seems modest compared with the Russians' moratorium on debts from credits over the past five years, said to include the $1 billion in hard currency provided by Moscow since the start of the crisis last summer. The soviets have also pledged continued assistance, subject presumably to a firmer handling of the political situation as demanded more than a week ago in the party- to-party letter.

To many outside observers here, however, it seems that only some kind of international "Marshall plan" can ever put Pol and back on its feet. But who will undertake it?

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