Realism and surrealism in Poland

One hesitates to criticize the gallant Poles. Yet after a brief visit here, a Western visitor cannot but ask: is it not time for the Polish people to stop the constant political confrontations and get down to the task of rebuilding their shattered economy?

To walk the streets of Warsaw, or Cracow, or other towns is to move in a surrealistic world, as one Pole aptly calls it. Long lines form at every corner for the most mundane items -- flour, matches, milk, bread, soap powder, toothpaste. There appears to be plenty of food in the country and no one goes hungry, but prices in the free markets of items in short supply, including meat, have soared. Black marketeering and hoarding are rife. Panic buying now is stripping the shops even of consumer durables.

The public's patience and civility under these conditions is remarkable. Yet there are signs of growing frustration. People voice weariness with the endless discussions and debates, even though these represent such a heady change from the shackling past. "I fear the economic crisis could lead to such social despair that the whole revolution will be jeopardized," said one concerned citizen.

The problem, a year after the momentous events in Gdansk, seems to be an absence of trust on every side. The Poles do not have confidence in their government or the communist party -- the price paid for 30 years of mismanagement and corruption. The regime, infused with some new blood and determined to prove it is in charge, nonetheless is weak and unpopular. Wary of the workers and their independent trade union, it is dragging its feet on promised reforms and does not always act in good faith.

Solidarity, for its part, has grown into a massive, loose organization embracing elements of various persuasion, including extremists who seek not compromise with the new regime but virtual dismantling of the one-party system. With the government on the defensive and Solidarity ever suspicious and beset by internal divisions, the two sides often end up talking past each other rather than trying to reach a modus vivendi.

"It was we, the workers, who pushed those in the party toward greater democracy, we taught them how to think," commented a local Solidarity leader with fervor. "But you have to keep your hand on their throat -- because if you don't squeeze they'll clamp down again, and we will lose what we have won. If we retreat we'll be in jail tomorrow."

More moderate reformers, on the other hand, are concerned that Solidarity not become the center of political power. They favor compromise with the party and government -- with Solidarity playing the role of a strict but loyal opposition and working within existing institutions to transform them rather than trying to build a whole new structure.

The moderates, mindful of the watching Russians, appreciate the risk of pressing the government too far. They also support such rational economic measures as higher prices (recently granted wage increases have only led to rampant inflation). Even the newly won five-day week is seen by some as a dubious victory when Poland's only way out of a staggering foreign debt is to produce more. Indeed the ghostly quiet which now pervades city streets on a Saturday -- everything is shut down -- seems to mock the very goal of economic rejuvenation.

Beyond the enervating political struggle lie questions about the attitudes of ordinary Poles who after three decades of socialism have grown accustomed to depending on the state. Will they buckle down to hard work even when economic reforms are finally put in place? Will they postpone demnads for a higher standard of living? Few think Poland can extricate itself from its economic problems without a long period of austerity and belt-tightening. Yet there are years of apathy in the work place to overcome, not to mention the demoralizing way of life in which people often beat the system through petty corruption and dishonesty.

This is not to be unimpressed by the profound changes taking place in a Soviet-bloc country.The reforms won -- in the party: news media, factories, farms, universities -- have far-reaching implications not only for Poland but for all Eastern Europe. Whatever happens, it is doubtful Poland will ever return to the dogmatism and repression of the past.

But a Western visitor is struck, too, by the uncertainties and dangers after a long year of revolutionary struggle. Poles have had the courage to press for greater liberty and democratization. Will they have the self-discipline to put their new freedoms to practical use?

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