Polish communists more troubled by economy than membership

Poland's economic recovery may be more elusive than the revival of the Communist Party. A national conference of party members which ended here Sunday indicated that the party has begun to recover from the internal demoralization of the Solidarity period. But the televised showings and domestic press coverage - the foreign press was excluded from the proceedings - suggested that the state of the economy made the conference a very sober affair.

Party leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski was in uniform, wearing his 11 rows of military ribbons. But these seemed to be the only reminder of military rule. The party has taken back the leading role in the government from the Army, which exerted great power during martial law and for some time after. This conference, in fact, seemed to put to rest fears that the Army's role might be something more permanent.

The Communist Party lost almost a million members in 1980 and during the martial law period, which began in December 1981 and was officially lifted last July.

But General Jaruzelski says the party is now in better shape. He claims that careerist and inefficient members have been weeded out, and that extensive changes in leading organizational posts at all levels have taken place.

But in classic communist terminology, it still has to regain its image as the party of the working class. ''Workers,'' the general said, ''should not be a mere constituent part of the party. They must also be its backbone.''

That has not been achieved yet.

Workers, in fact, were reported to make up about half of the 2.19 million members in the party, down from 3.15 million in 1980. But of the worker members, only 20 percent are involved in direct manual labor in the mines, shipyards, and other areas.

The party leader indicated another persistent concern: A large percentage of Polish workers, he said, are in their 20s, ''yet we have (had) the lowest percentage for a long time (since the '70s) of party members and candidate members below 30 years of age.''

The major thrust of the conference, however, was on the ailing economy, which for younger Poles - in fact, for most Poles of any generation - is the biggest test of the government's credibility.

It has been just over three years since Jaruzelski took over as prime minister, amid the industrial unrest that followed the emergence of Solidarity the previous summer.

Upon gaining power, Jaruzelski called for a 90-day period free of strikes, but his appeal went unheeded. Amid the galloping deterioration of the economy and the inability of Jaruzelski's ''moderate'' government to win public trust, workers repeatedly threatened a national strike. The sequel was martial law at the end of the year.

Where the economy is concerned, the position of the the government looks even more diffcult today.

The economy slowed and declined last year, even though this year has seen some upturn in industrial performance, most notably in coal mining.

But those statistics are one thing. The continued inflation, inefficient management, poor growth rate in productivity, and the poor quality of export goods are something else.

Poland's bank officials began talks with private bank creditors in the West last week about rescheduling the country's debts in the next few years. Other talks on rescheduling loans from Western governments are only in the preliminary stages.

But for all the effort, a real improvement in Poland is not possible as long as Western sanctions continue to depress the economy. The two most damaging sanctions have the inability of Poland to sell more exports to the United States , and the lack of access to credits from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Only such international aid can give the country the breathing space it needs to get reform and recovery going.

While the Soviet Union has ideological reservations about Poland joining the IMF and the resulting economic strings attached to such membership, the main obstacle, according to Polish officials, is opposition from the US.

Meanwhile, the long lines of women waiting several hours on these icy cold mornings for clothing stores to open is eloquent testimony to the biggest problem facing the government: the gap between demand and supply in the marketplace.

Some basics, including meat and other rationed items, are in greater supply than recently. But an acute shortage of many other everyday goods continues.

''They have to queue,'' a taxi driver remarks, ''because going later, they will get nothing.''

This year, a 15 to 17 percent rise in the cost of living is expected, with an accompanying rise of 17 percent in wages. There still will not be enough goods. And more price rises lie ahead.

Moreover, the new government-sponsored trade unions have begun to present their own challenge. Already they are showing more militancy than the government counted on. There have been no strikes this year, but several strikes have been averted only through arbitration.

With 4.3 million members, the new unions have nearly half of Solidarity's mass following. National organizations have proliferated to make them more difficult for the government to handle.

The unions themselves have just established a ''council of chairmen'' from the national groupings. At a first meeting, the council protested the authorities' failure to consult with it, as they are supposed to do, on increases in production-supply prices likely to affect consumer goods and services. The council has also called for a joint review board with the government.

The reemergence of a new union power - though limited - may be the next stage.

During the weekend conference, the party reasserted its commitment to economic reform, which includes the new unions.

Beyond the unions themselves, provisions for self-management on the shop floor and moves for workers councils have already begun in a number of Polish factories.

If the authorities don't get cold feet, these could be the means for greater worker production, which the economy needs more than anything else to recover.

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