Why the West should help rescue Poland

Last November this writer wrote on this page that ''Poland's desperate economic situation seems to call for a Western 'rescue operation' somewhat akin to the one that saved Yugoslavia from collapse in the early 1950s.''

Subsequently I wrote that the situation called even for some wider, international effort - involving West and East - based on a common understanding of Poland's geopolitical position as a key element in European security and stability. In retrospect, it is a pity - and perhaps a fatal mistake - that neither option was taken.

Poland's crisis today is into its 15th month and far worse than when those first words were written. The need for outside help, from whatever quarter, is even more imperative if Poland is to avert total breakdown and all its likely consequences. Instead, it is being subjected to punitive sanctions, including suspension of vital US government-backed supplies; and assistance from the US and the West in terms of food for the population at large is confined to privately funded shipments which, however charitable and well meaning, are but a trickle measured against the need.

More meaningful aid is coming from Poland's allies. Some have sent considerable convoys of food, medicines, and other essentials. Soviet Russia has just granted Poland a big new credit worth about $3.4 billion (making a total of some $8 billion since the summer of 1980). It is to cover the big Polish trade deficit last year and additional Soviet deliveries of oil, gas, and raw materials to help the Poles get started with the necessary reshaping of their economy. Indirectly, it can also help Warsaw with its difficulties in paying last year's interest on its massive Western debts.

It is understandably tempting for Western governments to say, ''Well, that's what allies are for. Moreover, since Poland is dominated by Russia and Russian pressure is behind martial law, let it pick up the tab.''

Whether the Soviet Union could afford to underwrite Poland to the full extent is an unknown factor. But if it could, would it? That is, without setting political terms which, in the present Polish political climate, would surely bring about internal reactions and consequences similar to those following a final economic disaster?

Poles are not yet near a state of starvation. But the everyday shortages and their everyday frustrations in obtaining food - often waiting a whole day in line for basics - are all dangerously aggravated by an exceptionally severe winter. In a month or so, meat will be even scarcer, except on the private and black markets at exorbitant prices; supplies are expected to be down by 400,000 tons this year because of US restrictions on grain and fodder exports to Poland.

Martial law or not, the government could well have no option but some resort akin to obligatory deliveries should the private farm sector - 80 percent of Polish agriculture - fail to respond to its appeals for ''loans'' of grain. The peasants are presently holding back produce from the markets, against payment in bonds redeemable a year or so hence.

Again, martial law or not, the authorities have to face the old explosive question of food prices. Producer goods and raw materials have already gone up in price. Now food prices are being raised, sometimes by 200 to 400 percent. The percentages sound worse than the actual new prices but, in Polish terms and even with the promised compensation in new wage levels, they mean more hardships for most Poles, above all the lower-paid.

This is just one instance of the failure of the government and Solidarity to ''communicate.'' There was mutual agreement that a price structure matched to supply and demand is the first prerequisite of economic reform. But, so great was the mutual distrust, that the union remained skeptical to the last of the government's pledged intention to follow through with the whole reform.

Putting pressure on the private farmers by making access to machinery and feedstuffs conditional on opening up grain reserves and putting more meat on the state markets might prove popular with underfed townsfolk. But, despite a pending law on security of land tenure, it would also revive old peasant fears about collectivization.

Yet if the shortages of food - and already evident malnutrition - grow, what alternative would the government have?

There is another good reason why West and East, instead of conducting a ''cold war'' over a near prostrate Poland, should both help it instead.

Aid for communist Yugoslavia - US emergency help in 1951 and thereafter the Anglo-American-French program that put the country soundly on its feet - made shrewd political common sense. It assured Yugoslavia's independence when, without such support, even Tito might have failed to withstand the Soviet pressures.

The analogy, of course, is not complete. Poland is not independent. It is riveted firmly in the Soviet alliance for as far ahead as one can see. But its further destabilization, and as a result its probable descent into civil conflict and Soviet intervention, would only end such domestic tolerances as the reform package can still bring. And, like a Yugoslav collapse in the '50s, it would even more gravely upset the present balance of power between the blocs in Europe and, concomitantly, in a wider field as well.

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