Polish hopes going up in smoke?

Poles seem bent on proving that the future of this country of 37 million people hangs on a puff of smoke. A heated dispute between the government and Solidarity over sharp price hikes for cigarettes and tobacco threatens to undermine the more moderate course set by the independent union at its national convention in Gdansk.

The union reelected Lech Walesa, a moderate, as its leader. And just as everything seemed lined up for new government-union talks on the future -- not least the country's economic travails -- this latest confrontation mushroomed up.

The uproar at the convention hall when it was learned that cigarette and tobacco prices would almost double, and with only two days' notice, demonstrated not only the power of the new union movement but also the continued weakness of the Polish government.

It also seemed to mirror the failures of three Polish governments since 1970 to take into account the despairing moods and frustrations of this nation.

In 1970, 1976, and last August, explosions of popular feeling were touched off by government moves to increase prices with very little warning and on a scale well beyond the pockets of most people.

Economic reform -- as well as extension of political and civil rights -- was an essential part of the agreements that brought an end to the 1980 strikes.

Everyone knew that reform required a new price structure based on normal market criteria, and that had to include higher consumer prices. Solidarity accepted it as part of the deal -- subject to proper consultation.

A few weeks ago, bread prices were raised without much difficulty. That removed bread from the ration list and supplies improved, since the new prices discouraged peasants from buying bread as animal feed.

Poles knew more price hikes were ahead. But the announcement about cigarettes took them by surprise.

There have been some angry and occasionally ugly clashes between Solidarity and the authorities since the incident of police brutality at Bydgoszcz in March. The scene in the convention hall late Sunday seemed to threaten the worst.

As the delegates reassembled Monday morning, there was total confusion and conflicting reports as to whether the government had yielded to a convention demand that the new prices be suspended pending negotiation.

Cigarette vendors as confused as anyone else. One said he didn't have any to sell anyway. Another said he had and was selling at the old prices, with his hand indicating "under the counter."

To readers outside Poland it must seem extraordinary that a country could be threatened with a general strike -- and perhaps worse -- over cigarettes.

The very possibility reveals both the continued distrust of the government and the fatigue of a people who have endured so many acute deprivations of the most basic necessities of life so long and their bitterness at what they see as their rulers' failure to take this into account.

Many Poles lament that they rank No. 4 after the Americans, the British, and the Japanese among the world's heaviest smokers. But for the mass of workers and the several millions who live on or below the so-called "social minimun," even the cheapest cigarettes have become a luxury and a kind of "compensation."

Several months there was such a shortage that the queues at tobacconists' were as long as those for meat, and rationing was introduced.

When two members of the government flew to Gdansk Sunday to explain the price decision, the scene was a mixture of pathos and almost comic opera.

To most people there were elements of sheer tragedy as well, given that it was cigarettes that were under discussion, now ways and means of securing an understanding with the miners on the sensitive issue of Saturday work. A start toward putting the economy back on its feet depends, more than anything else, on the digging of more coal.

Delegates were angry that the government seemed to have skirted its pledges to consult the union, although two members of Solidarity's executive committee apparently had been informed.

One of them angrily told the delegates they should be talking about the general food shortage, not just about cigarettes.

For two hours delegates questioned the ministers, laughed scornfully at many of their replies, and demanded suspension of the decision pending negotiations.

The union voted to appoint union representatives to meet with the ministers behind the scenes, but the wrangling went on. Finally, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa intervened.

"Tell the prime minister to cancel the increases or there will be trouble," he told the ministers. "If you do that, we can negotiate."

That at least brought this bizzare episode nearer to reason. The delegates cheered. The finance minister said he was not empowered to negotiate a change but could discuss "compensation." The possibility of talks fizzled. So did the session.

The government has said there can be no going back on the new prices, but is ready to discuss compensation through the pay packet.

Meanwhile, in Warsaw the Communist Party newspaper Trybuna Ludu disclosed a negative reaction from the regime toward the union's demand for amendment of the self-management law.

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