Poland's economy: toothpaste index up

Poles can buy toothpaste and hair shampoo in the stores again.

That may not sound like much to Westerners accustomed to finding all they need - and much more - on local store shelves.

But for the past year, Poles have had to scour the black market to find those items. And their reappearance in the stores here is among a few straws in the otherwise chill wind indicating that industry has managed its first, tiny, upturn in productivity in two years.

Other straws: a 1 percent growth in output in August; expectation that rationing of soap and detergents will end by January; an improvement in work performance in some export industries (coal, copper, sulfur); the seasonal abundance of vegetables and fruit.

But the Polish economy has a long, long way to go to get back on its feet.

While news media economists profess to see the first glimmer of light at the end of Poland's long crisis tunnel, the government is warning of difficulties to come this winter: Despite some good agricultural results, meat supplies will fall off in the next few months. Part of the monthly 2 1/2 kilogram (10 pounds) per capita ration will probably be bone.

The economists say some further price increases are unavoidable, if a realistic price system - one of the main planks of reform - is to be attained.

In addition, shoes, stockings, socks, and other items of clothing will be rationed according to local need and availability. Already there are queues for socks, and they are almost as long as the meat lines before rationing.

The industrial upturn is still relative. From January through August enough coal was cut to ensure reaching this year's target - if the tempo is maintained. It is hoped that output will exceed 180 million tons.

That would represent a 17.5 percent increase - and a welcome spurt in export (including substantial hard-currency sales) - but it is measured against last year, when output was a disastrous 30 million tons below 1980. By the same token , industrial productivity last month was up by 7 percent on August 1981. But, since January, it is still down on last year.

The evidence is slim. The government apparently believes the economy shows signs of moving at last. It says the downward trend is coming to a halt. Even so , the most optimistic review claims no more than that ''at any rate, it did not slip further last month.''

In contrast with statistics, recent government and Communist Party Politburo meetings lent stark point to the all-pervasive nature of Poland's malaise.

These two highest decisionmaking bodies in the land somberly debated the urgency of securing adequate supplies of general work clothes and of protective clothing and shoes for industrial workers before winter. They also discussed how to improve safety conditions for them.

They spoke of the workers' long-justified complaints and voted a special allotment from the meager hard-currency reserve to import the necessary materials.

A strenuous campaign is under way to convince people, especially workers, that a Polish government finally has their interests at heart. There seems to be a more resolute effort to crack down on the widespread racketeering and cornering of consumer goods, to invoke stiff sanctions against food speculators and profiteering, and to keep prices generally within reasonable limits.

It is claimed the economic reform is slowly starting to work, with self-financing and other viability tests for enterprises under way and ''workers' self-management'' reactivated in more than 300 factories.

But it is self-management in the old 1970s form - assuring the Communist Party has a dominant voice in the factory councils - and not the independent, elected structure agreed with Solidarity.

In the enterprises, the self-financing is often exploited to raise prices and make quick profits regardless of social interest.

But, three formidable problems remain: foreign debts, agriculture, and the carrying out of the reform.

Agreement seems near with the Western banks on rescheduling the $3.4 billion in principal and interest Poland should pay this year. But many economic specialists continue to ask if Poland will ever be able to do more than hold off its Western creditors by (as one expert says) ''paying a bit here and a bit there,'' with the banks providing fresh credit periodically to ''keep the country going.'' Their primary concern, of course, is getting at least some of their money back.

In agriculture, the state farms are doing better, with a useful increase in grains and a boost in animal feed giving a spur to stock-raising. But, under the Planning Commission's latest proposals, agriculture's share in planned investments and the proportion of industry tied to farming needs both face cuts below the promises in last year's program.

Such changes cast doubts on the government's credibility with the agricultural population. That, a Polish expert has warned, is ''exactly what we should avoid.''

Overall implementation of reform is slow. The explicit intention to abolish the notorious ''nomenklatura'' system - the party's monopoly of selecting industrial managers and other top people on political criteria, which excludes from top jobs many highly qualified experts who do not belong to the party - is still thwarted by bureaucrats determined to hold on to posts and privileges.

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