Could Yugoslavia turn into another Poland economically? Yes, say Western bankers who are leery of lending more money to this Eastern European country which has an even higher per capita foreign debt than bankrupt Poland.
No, insist Yugoslav officials, skittish at the mere mention of Yugoslavia and Poland in the same breath. Yugoslavia was rather more rational and gradual than Poland in its 1970s investment spurt, they say. And, they continue (if they are being especially frank), Yugoslavia has two hard-currency assets that Poland lacks: $2 billion a year (1980 gross receipts) from Western tourists, and an estimated $16 billion savings - half inside Yugoslavia, half abroad - of Yugoslav workers in Western Europe.
Moreover, the basic acceptance of the political system by Yugoslav workers means that there's no Polish-style work stoppage or downward spiral of production for political reasons.
Taken together, the differences outweigh the similarities.
Like Poland, Yugoslavia went in for heavy borrowing from the West in the 1970 s to finance basic industrial modernization, an effort that by now has given both countries a respectable level of per capita production of about $2,500. Like Poland, Yugoslavia planned to repay much of its debt with exports from the new factories thus financed back to the West. Like Poland, Yugoslavia's plans got frustrated by the unhappy combination of higher oil prices and the recession that shrank markets in the West.
Unlike the Poles, the Yugoslavs kept their own gross domestic product (GDP) and standard of living growing at a healthy pace until last year; have already rationalized their agricultural price structure and gotten farm subsidies down to close to 1 percent of agricultural product; and have long since moved their economy from central planning to respond to market forces. Unlike Poland, Yugoslavia still classifies itself as a developing country, produces only about 60 percent of Poland's total GDP, and therefore has to pay back its foreign debts on a smaller industrial base.
The upshot is a GDP of $58.5 billion (1980, up 2.5 percent from the previous year); a Western debt of $18.4 billion ($836 per capita, as against the Polish $ 770 figure); an oil-trade dependency that is lurching toward the Soviet bloc; an induced 1980 current-accounts deficit of $6.1 billion; current inflation of close over 35 percent; and personal incomes that are falling 6 percent after already tumbling 7 percent last year.
Overall, it's a situation the Yugoslav newspaper reporters keep describing as ''complex,'' ''difficult,'' ''grave,'' and ''alarming.'' But in their heart of hearts they really don't think it's anywhere near as grave or alarming as Poland's economy.
Everything was going smoothly until the late 1970s.
''Between 1976 and 1980 we had a relatively high rate of GDP growth of nearly 6 percent,'' explains Dragomir Vojnic, chairman of the Federal Council of Economic Advisers and director of the Zagreb Economic Institute. ''We had a rather satisfactory situation, with a rise of productivity of labor, employment, etc. But unfortunately things changed by the end of the '70s. The rate of growth declined and the rate of inflation increased. Of course the balance-of-payments deficit increased.
''To some extent now we have to pay some price for the good conditions in the previous five-year plan. All over the world the majority of countries, whether socialist or capitalist, had a decreasing growth rate over the past five years. Yugoslavia was rather stable and had a high level of growth, but under conditions of increasing inflation and an increasing deficit (in its) balance of payments.''
Over the past five years, Professor Vojnic continues, Yugoslavia had ''an extremely high rate of investment. Looking at overall fixed assets and increase of stocks, during almost the whole five-year period investment was more than 40 percent of GDP. That's extremely high. Part of that investment consumption and capital accumulation was reached through deficit financing.''