Helping Poland -- prudently

Poland has gone an admirably long way toward liberalization of its political system. Now comes no less challenging a task: lifting the nation out of its economic morass. It is clear that the time has come for the West to give more than moral support. Economic aid -- extended prudently -- will be essential if the Polish people's courageous experiment in a freer society is to succeed.

We are glad to see the United States moving in this direction. As a "humanitarian gesture" the Reagan administration is giving Poland a $50 million loan to buy some 350,000 tons of corn. This will help avert the forced slaughter of poultry and hogs as Polish authorities seek to boost farm production and alleviate the severe meat shortages.

Progress can also be reported in rescheduling Poland's $27 billion debt to the West. American and West European bankers have met in Zurich and agreed on a plan to defer the some $2.4 billion in payments due this year. Under US prodding, the creditors are demanding in return that Poland provide detailed data about its economic situation and its recovery plans -- a demand that may be hard to swallow in Warsaw but which nonetheless is a reasonable one.

These are short-term steps, however. Poland will need a debt-deferral program spanning several years and a guarantee of additional credits while it carries out drastic reforms. The question is how much the West should commit itself before it has a comprehensive Polish plan in hand. There is reason to proceed cautiously. Unless firm conditions are laid down for Western aid, the danger exists that Poland will stop short of thoroughgoing economic change. By only half-hearted measures, it would simply perpetuate those inefficient planning and other practices which created the crisis in the first place.

It is not a matter of arm-twisting an already beleaguered nation but of making certain that the West does not end up endlessly subsidizing a discredited economic system. Polish liberals themselves want the West to keep up the pressure for true reform rather than mere window dressing. Without such reform, Poles will have no incentive to tighten their belts for a long period of austerity ahead and no trust in the new leadership. And, if things get desperate enough, the Russians could muscle their way in and take charge.

And what of the Soviet Union? It, too, is being forced to defer Poland's debts and to provide massive amounts of assistance. This puts the WEst and the Soviet bloc in the ironic position of pursuing the mutually advantageous goal of Poland's economic growth. One report from Washington has it that the administration, as part of a multibillion-dollar US aid plan, is seeking Moscow's permission for Poland to join the International Monetary Fund -- a move which would enhance the confidence of Western creditors.

Amazing? After the mind-boggling events of the past months, nothing should be surprising. The question now is less whether the Russians will invade than whether the West will seize the opportunity to help Poland keep moving in the direction of longed-for reform .

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