Poland turns to East for economic aid, but prospects are thin

Unable to pay Poland's debts to the West or extract more credits from that quarter, Polish officials are turning eastward.

But their efforts may not do them much good.

Poland is also deeply in debt to its East bloc trading partners in the Comecon trade group. It owes them some 3 billion transferable rubles (about $2. 28 billion at Western market exchange rates) and a lot of convertible currency, a debt the Soviet Union is currently financing.

Talk among Polish officials about economic ''reorientation'' has been modified to a ''change based on (Soviet) aid.'' Government spokesmen say a reduction of the massive economic dependence on the West is made necessary by Western sanctions. Often they seem to be speaking more in sorrow than in anger.

''It does not mean turning our backs on the West,'' says Stanislaw Dlugosz, deputy chairman of Poland's planning commission. ''(It is not) an attempt at autarchy or withdrawal into the Comecon circle.''

More ties with Comecon will facilitate Poland's recovery, he argues, and thus its ability to regain standing with the West.

But economists say forthrightly that the Comecon states cannot match the Western industrial-technological connection or compensate for the loss of Western credits.

At the basic level of food support, for example, most of the Eastern bloc is helping the Poles. But Comecon's inefficient organization and other difficulties impose limits.

According to recent East German estimates, quoted by the newspaper Rzeczpospolita, wasteful production methods cause East-bloc states to lose 30 percent of meat and 10 percent of meat products, 20 percent of poultry, 38 percent of vegetables, and 18 percent of fruit. Some 20 percent of all raw materials for food industries are lost because of inadequate storage.

In addition, Poland must reckon with the growing competition among Comecon members. All have their own debts to the West, but Poland accounts for one-third of their combined total of $75 billion.

Economists here are increasingly warning that, because of its own slowing dynamics of development and economic inefficiency, Comecon simply does not have the means Poland requires.

As one writer expressed it in the May 27 issue of the Polish weekly Polityka, in the most challenging article of its kind to appear since martial law, ''reorientation'' seems an unrealistic option. Carried too far, it could isolate Poland from Western technology, thus reducing chances for recovery and a return to the international market.

The politicians seem to take comfort from modest reforms being made in other areas. But the experts are showing general, increasing concern over delays in economic reforms.

Recently leading economists are said to have conveyed to Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski their concern over how much more serious the situation could become in only a few months if certain major steps toward economic reform are not taken soon.

Publicly they point to the continued adverse effect of having several exchange rates, of subsidies to ''lame duck'' enterprises, and of the way in which many enterprises manage to evade cutbacks, even though banks are no longer supposed to grant credit automatically.

Last year, it was openly recognized that reform must entail the closure of nonviable plants and, thus, large-scale unemployment. But the authorities have become more concerned about the social implications, especially under the tensions of martial law.

They have still not decided whether to close unprofitable plants or to subsidize them. Fifty failing enterprises have been selected for a kind of trial run in bankruptcy to test out the consequences.

The economists' view was reflected by the Warsaw daily Zycie Warszawy, which said bluntly that to avoid the issue was to challenge the essentials of the reform and provide ''a rich uncle at society's expense.''

The author of Polityka's May 27 article is Prof. Mieczyslaw Nasilowski, a member of the government's prestigious consultative group headed by Prof. Czeslaw Bobrowski, Poland's leading economist.

To emphasize the gravity of the situation Mr. Nasilowski listed 12 problem areas ranging from large-scale nonuse of production capacity and excessive employment to the unbalanced state of the market; from failure to insist on enterprise profitability to wage structures that neither correspond to productivity nor foster an increase in productivity.

He acknowledged the difficulties caused by reduced imports of raw materials and components from the West. But he nonetheless regreted lack of incentives and failure to convince public opinion that the reform will be vigorously carried through.

''It is impossible,'' he wrote, ''to encourage people by promises that sometime in future things will improve because it still will not depend on them while the authorities proceed in an administrative and ideological way.''

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