Polish officials speak frankly about nation's economic woes

``Without some help from outside, we are doomed to failure.'' The candid and gloomy assessment was given by one of Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski's closest advisers in an unofficial talk with the Monitor here only a few weeks ago.

Publicly General Jaruzelski and top aides like Vice-Premier Mieczyslaw Rakowski have begun to sound a quiet but confident note that Poland will weather its current economic woes.

Privately, however, one does not encounter much optimism, though the attitude of blank finality suggested by the quote above has softened somewhat.

Agreement has finally been reached with the Club of Paris, a group of 17 Western government creditors, to reschedule repayment of some of Poland's formidable debts.

And fresh money to tide the economy over immediate strains is probably in sight.

Political pressures weigh just as heavily on the Jaruzelski administration as do economic concerns, however.

``People are getting poorer and poorer every day,'' said the government adviser, ``not only the lower income families but medium-placed families as well.''

At another meeting in the Council of Ministers building, Stanislaw Ciosek, who is responsible for labor affairs, takes my note pad to draw two graphs.

One is the line of ascent in living standards expected over the next five years. There is only a modest hope of a return to the consumer level of 1979, the year before the now-banned Solidarity trade union was formed.

The second -- a more dramatic, upward curve -- is the anticipated increase in consumer demands during the same period.

``The first represents our [maximum] possibilities,'' Mr. Ciosek said. ``The second the aspirations of the people.''

He shaded in the area between the two lines. ``And that,'' he added, ``is an area of permanent conflict. And if we cannot narrow it . . . I don't know what can happen.''

Jaruzelski was just as forthright in June when speaking to a top-level economic conference sponsored by the Communist Party. He posed the specter of political and economic bankruptcy unless Poland can turn itself around.

``A grave, even brutal, dilemma is taking shape,'' he said. ``We shall either get modernized, catch up with the times, improve the nation's material existence, and strengthen our position in the socialist community, Europe, and the world . . . or we shall remain behind, facing the threat of a degradation which, in social terms, would mean wretched pauperization.''

The government, Jaruzelski said, had chosen to modernize. But for reform to succeed, much stricter action must be taken against the bureaucracy's ``reluctance to change'' and against its doubts about how workable the reforms really are.

It will be interesting to see if the government employs the kind of tough measures against this potentially dangerous obstructionism that it has taken recently against the active opposition of the Solidarity remnants or the intellectuals.

The agreement with the Club of Paris will allow Poland to reschedule over 12 years the debt it accumulated between 1982 and 1984. It will not have to make payment until 1990. The present difficulty is that, under the accord, Poland must still pay $1.3 billion in interest due this year -- leaving it with a 1985 earnings gap of $1 billion, which can be bridged only by outside help.

No one beats around the bush here that ``outside help'' means the West. The Soviet Union has made it clear that Poland will get no more handouts or aid as such. Henceforth economic relations are going to be based on the hard-nosed business dealing Moscow is demanding of all the East Europeans.

There seems noticeably less talk now of a Western -- and in particular, United States -- interest to destabilize Poland as a weapon against the Soviet Union. Instead, there is repeated insistence that the West has failed to understand that the martial-law period was inevitable and that declaration of martial law in December 1981 was the government's only option.

Another example cited by the government is the unhelpful role played by overmilitant priests in the decline of relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Polish state, and the impact of that decline on society generally.

``Only a few of the priests -- perhaps 200 [out of more than 22,000] -- are really troublesome for us,'' says Adam Lopatka, head of the government's Office for Religious Affairs, in a Monitor interview.

``If our situation were more normal, it would be no problem at all. But when living standards are lower than five or six years ago, housing conditions so bad, and the need for higher prices growing all the time, it creates a dangerous atmosphere when priests openly support calls for strikes.''

``For some time this has been our main issue with the church,'' Mr. Lopatka says.

Clearly that has been a factor in the delay in deciding on such questions as the Catholic Church's legal status and the private, church-supported fund to aid private agriculture.

``But we know the church is 2,000 years old and that socialism in Poland, after all, has to be built by Catholics, since 80 percent of the nation is Catholic.''

When Ciosek, the labor minister, ponders aloud about possible dangers ahead, he is only saying forthrightly what many people are thinking and even fearing.

In this present situation, there is always the risk of conflict of the kind seen in 1970 and 1976 (the strike years that set the stage for the August 1980 strike that led to the formation of Solidarity).

``Government policy is concentrated on avoiding conflict,'' Ciosek says, ``and so far we have succeeded.''

``[But] people can reach a point where they will not stand for it any more.''

An air of paradox is widespread here, in fact. There is a public general indifference (which potentially is worse for the government than opposition), but there is also a vague idea that ``something'' must happen sooner or later.

There is already speculation that change may come with next year's Communist Party congress. It is being discussed here in terms of the struggle between the liberal center and the hard-line faction.

Many people are skeptical that the liberal center will be able to hold out for a year. Some dismiss the possibility altogether.

This -- and the fact that the Jaruzelski team will certainly come under new pressures in the meantime -- should perhaps be borne in mind when Western governments decide what to do for Poland under the new Paris debts agreement.

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