The Polish predicament

Poland's mini-liberation begins tomorrow.

Some of the worst, most obvious, and most repressive features of martial law are to be ''suspended.''

There will be fewer soldiers involved in repression of the popular sentiments of the people.

There will be some release of internees. After tomorrow those still held in confinement will be prisoners who have been found guilty in court of violating laws, rules, and regulations - as interpreted by the authorities.

But one thing there will not be - any marvelous improvement in the economic welfare of the Polish people.

The saddest truth for the Polish people themselves is that the government could not, even with the best will in the world, do much to improve their economic lot.

This is not the time for improvement.

Ten years ago it might have been a different story. Ten years ago Poland's economy was booming. It was enjoying a remarkably high growth rate at around 8 percent. It was building modern factories and getting them into production. The automobile industry, for example, produced 49,000 cars in 1969. Ten years later, in 1979, the figure reached 350,000. From about 1965 through 1975 Poland was doing well.

The trouble was that it was being done heavily on borrowed money. Poland's debts to the West reached a staggering $25 billion.

When martial law was imposed on Poland last December the Western world gave fresh thought to that debt. Western bankers have been generous. They have negotiated all sorts of devices for easing the burden, in order to avoid default. Interest payments have been delayed or assumed by others.

But the debt is still there - all $25 billion - and who is going to loan the Poles more money until or unless they can demonstrate ability to carry the debt already upon their shoulders?

Presumably the Soviets and other communist countries in Eastern Europe would help out, if they could. But all of them are also laboring under a high debt burden. They have little to loan to Poland, and less ability to help by buying Polish exports.

One important Polish asset is its ship-building industry. But there is a glut of merchant shipping in the world. Another asset, and industry, is low-technology machinery. As late as 1979 machinery was Poland's largest category of exports, 37 percent of the total, almost all of it going to the Soviet Union.

Coal is Poland's second largest export, at 14 percent of total. Polish coal goes largely to the West, and earns valuable credit there. But most of that credit must go now for servicing the debt. The West also buys Polish ham. But Poland is short of meat for its own tables. In 1979 food accounted for 13 percent of Poland's imports, but only 7 percent of Poland's exports. Poland has been running a deficit on its trade for a long time. With credit exhausted, it can no longer borrow to cover the trade deficit.

Ten years ago a return to the enterprise system would have brought Poland by this time to a satisfactory living standard. But Polish communism has been backward compared to more liberal variations in East Germany, Hungary, and Yugoslavia.

There are occasional shortages of food and consumer goods in East Germany and Czechoslovakia, none in Hungary or in Yugoslavia. Where private incentive has been allowed to revive, even a communist country can attain a respectable standard of living. Hungary is the most dramatic example of the moment.

But in Poland today there is little to use for incentive. The goods are simply not there. Poland must go through a phase of austerity, and plain hard work, to get back to a sound economy.

If the mass of working people felt that they would be rewarded in time for a period of hard work with low return, perhaps they would all go to work with a will. But if incentives are not available in food and consumer goods - what incentive is there?

Patriotism could do the job, if the government could rouse the patriotism of the people. But why should any ordinary Pole feel patriotically motivated to help a regime which is at best corrupt and inefficient and at worst hostile to the country's yearnings for freedom and independence?

The Polish government is forced by Moscow to rule with an iron hand. But to revive Poland it must have the willing cooperation of the people. How can it possibly satisfy both Moscow and Poland?

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