East-West hand for prodigal Poland

Seldom can the West agree with pronouncements from the Kremlin. But the Soviet Politburohs warning to its East European allies against going into "excessive debt to the capitalist state" could just as usefully have been issued in Washington, Bonn; or Paris. Poland is the deserved target, of course. No one in East or West could defend the bankrupt policy of the previous Polish government which, in its overagerness to modernize the economy, became indebted to the West to the extent of about $27 billion. The hard lesson is there for all to learn.

The question now is how to help Poland out of its economic plight. Ironically, East and West have a mutual interest in salvaging the Polish economy. The Russians do not relish the thought of intervening in Poland, because a Soviet occupation would destroy trade ties with the West and add incalculably to their own economic budens. The Western nations, for their part, stand to suffer financially if Poland abandons its obligations. Hence the common need for rational, long-term support.

Fortunately, both sides are moving in this direction. The Soviet Union clearly is not happy with the continuing struggle for political and economic liberalization of Poland but for the moment still seems prepared to let the extraordinary experiment go forward. After Leonid Brezhnev's meeting with Polish leaders in the Crimea, the Kremlin said it would defer some $4.2 billion in Polish debts until after 1985. It also promised to provide more raw materials and consumer goods to Poland. These concessions could not be easy for the Russians, who had counted on huge imports from Poland during this pland period.

Western banks, for their part, have won from Poland broad acceptance of a proposal for rescheduling about $2.4 billion of the debt falling due this year. While this would alleviate some of the financial stress, further loans would be needed to get the economy moving again. West Germany and other creditors, however, are right in making such aid contingent on Poland joining the International Monetary Fund -- a move which would force some financial discipline on the Poles.

Primary blame for the sorry state of the Polish economy certainly rests with Poland's former inept and corrupt communist leadership. It is up to the Poles to show that, even within the Soviet bloc, it is possible to manage the economy more sensibly and efficiently. The Hungarians and the East Germans do, after all. But Western traders and bankers might ask themselves whether they do not bear some of the responsibility by having so zealously pursued business in Poland with apparently little thought of the country's ability to pay. The Russians did try periodically to caution the Poles, but advice from Moscow is lightly heeded in Warsaw.

Now the chickens have come home to roost, and it is significant to see East and West working not in concert, to be sure, but along parallel tracks to avoid a Polish economic Dunkirk neither side wants. For the sake of a new economic order in Poland -- and stability in Europe -- it is to be hoped they succeed.

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