Soviets signal Polish economy is on its own

The Soviet Union is signaling the military regime of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski that it is time for Poland to come to grips with its economic and political turmoil.

The implication is clear that, should General Jaruzelski not succeed, the Soviets themselves could finally decide to take a more direct hand.

The Poles have been reminded that Soviet aid - considerable in the first 18 months after the Solidarity union was formed - is not a bottomless well into which they can lower a bucket at will. Through 10 months of martial law there has been no repeat of the half-billion dollars in Soviet hard-currency loans of 1980-81.

Recently, in a Polish Army Day message, Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri Ustinov repeated the standard pledge of support for a Warsaw Pact ally against internal or external threat. He made no mention of economic assistance.

The Soviets have told the Poles their trade deficit must be reduced first. Between January and July of this year, Soviet exports dipped 10 to 15 percent compared to 1981. Polish deliveries to the USSR showed a comparable rise.

Soviet ''aid'' currently is limited to supplies of raw materials - cotton, wool, and hides, for example - that otherwise idled Polish factories are turning into fabrics, clothing, and shoes. Some 75 percent of this production is sold to the Soviet Union, the rest supposedly goes to the home market.

The Poles are putting the best face they can on this situation. ''A priority now is to repay the Russians something of what they have given us,'' an official close to General Jaruzelski told a Western reporter recently. ''They are asking for it and they have the right to do so.''

''There can be no credit without guarantees of repayment. Efficiency must now be the iron law, . . .'' the chairman of the Polish National Bank, Stanislaw Majewski, said in a Polish newspaper last month. He made reference to cutbacks in subsidies to ailing enterprises.

The Soviets themselves are making this kind of hard-nosed economic thinking plain to other allies, too.

There has been talk for a long time of a major summit of COMECON members. (COMECON is the East-bloc trading community.) President Brezhnev himself floated the idea in February. In July he and Czechoslovakia's Gustav Husak attached ''great significance to the forthcoming meeting.'' Romania and Hungary endorsed it.

But nothing has come of it yet. Moscow's enthusiasm has apparently diminished , probably because of its own economic difficulties.

At such a summit, the Russians would face Oliver Twist-like requests for more not only from Poland and the almost equally beleaguered Romania, but also from the other East Europeans. All have their difficulties.

''Moscow is all the time being asked for more energy fuels, more raw materials, more supplies of all sorts,'' a Western expert said. ''At this juncture, it cannot do it without seriously aggravating its own problems overall.''

Paradoxically, the East Europeans all would like - and would benefit from - a more open, more flexible trading community. Some make no bones about desiring less dependence on the Soviet Union. But just now, they are in no shape to see that reliance reduced.

The Poles are left with few options but to put more eggs in the COMECON basket.

They are trapped in a vicious circle of needing both East (raw materials) and West (technology) to start getting their house in order.

Martial law under General Jaruzelski - however counterproductive in other ways - has at least brought some stability to a chaotic market. It seems to be establishing a more realistic approach to the economic facts of life.

If competent officials have been demoted or removed because of over-enthusiasm for Solidarity, some party-protected hacks have been sacked as well for incompetence.

Many inefficient enterprises are still cushioned with subsidies, but their number is declining. A start has been made on two of the so-called ''three S's'' of economic reform.

The better managers are trying to make a go of self-sufficiency and self-financing. If only from managerial self-concern, they are also trying to interest their workers in enterprise self-government. But with the shock of Solidarity's liquidation, this will take time.

Winter is nearing. Undoubtedly there will be more hardship. But rationing - which Solidarity itself demanded in August 1980 - has brought improvements and some fairness to distribution.

Surprisingly perhaps, the miners did not react to Solidarity's banning. Their respectable performance this year is the one substantial comfort General Jaruzelski has after a year as Communist Party chief as well as premier.

Coal output - vital to domestic energy and foreign trade - was up 16 percent in the January-June half-year (on 1981) to 95 million tons. It is getting within striking distance of 1979's all-time peak of 201 million. Exports are about double last year's meager figure.

The picture in most other industrial branches, in agriculture, and in consumer goods is much less promising. Although Western sanctions presented some difficulties, they have done little except destroy Polish chicken farms.

Martial law may not have been called for politically. But it may have cleared the way for more sensible economic assessments and effort.

The realm issue now is how to overcome or at least reduce the workers' persistent feeling of frustration and hopelessness so they finally are induced to work at least as well as the miners.

If Jaruzelski can manage that, then perhaps there will at last be a glimmer at the end of the present tunnel of stalemate.

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