Poland: change at the top

IN stepping down as prime minister of Poland, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski will now be able to concentrate on rebuilding the ruling communist party -- while also helping to convey the impression to the international community that Poland has returned to a period of normality after the turbulence of recent years. Indeed, a sense of stability has marked Poland in the past few months, despite such occasional unpleasant incidents as the recent death of a young student arrested by police. The youth, who was buried yesterday, passed on under disputed circumstances, although government officials insist that he was injured while fleeing from authorities.

The student incident, nonetheless, stands in contrast to more-positive trends within Poland of late, including, as the government is eager to note, last month's parliamentary election, which produced a sizable 78.8 percent voter turnout despite a boycott campaign by Solidarity, the government-banned trade union movement. And General Jaruzelski is widely considered to have had a successful trip to New York in September, when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly.

In and of itself, the change in prime ministers does not necessarily mean there will be a significant shift of power in Poland. General Jaruzelski suppressed the Solidarity trade union movement after assuming power as prime minister in 1981. And his authority has remained intact during the past four years of strife within that nation.

Now, as first secretary of the Polish United Workers (communist) Party, he will continue to occupy the titular role in Poland's internal political system. And, in fact, by also becoming chairman of the Council of State, Jaruzelski becomes head of state. Thus, by replacing the veteran Henryk Jablonski in that latter post, the new combination of positions -- head of the party as well as ceremonial President -- could mean an increased leadership position for Jaruzelski and support for his twofold pol icy of conciliation toward the Polish people offset by firmness against any opposition, including the Solidarity movement.

General Jaruzelski has his work cut out for him. Communist party membership is down. He would like to concentrate on refurbishing the party between now and next June, when it holds its 10th congress. At that time party hard-liners are expected to attack government efforts -- at least, lip-service efforts -- to reform the economy.

Fundamental economic reform is still a long way off. Zbigniew Messner, Poland's new prime minister, has a credible background in economics and has been deputy prime minister under Jaruzelski. Clearly Poland, which is seeking formal admission to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) -- with the possibility of future IMF loans to help pay off its enormous outside debt -- continues to experience major economic problems. Although the nation has enjoyed several good years on the agricultural front, the pace of growth within industry is down. The nation expects overall growth in the 2 to 3 percent range this year, a modest level, given the smaller size of the Polish economy compared with a much larger nation like the US, which expects somewhat similar growth.

One problem that will have to be faced by the government: Wages have been outpacing production of late, which means that although Poles have more disposable income, they do not have all that much to spend it on.

For the Western community, the litmus test about the meaning of the governmental staff changes during the next few weeks will be what happens on the political front. Warsaw is now talking about some form of amnesty for political prisoners.

But the extent to which there is an actual easing of civil liberties, including amnesty for top Solidarity officials, will be more important than words -- or changes in job titles -- about the direction in which Poland is moving.

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