In Poland, full shelves come before Solidarity. Premier counts on economic steps to satisfy call for reform

Mieczyslaw Rakowski is betting that toilet paper is more important than Solidarity. Since being named prime minister in October, Mr. Rakowski has moved to implement a radical economic reform program, while stalling on political reform.

His strategy aims to end shortages in stores - such as the absence of toilet paper, which has come to symbolize the failure of Poland's state-run economy. His strategy also means refusing to legalize Solidarity - the trade union whose existence symbolizes real political pluralism to many Polish workers.

``Rakowski is saying, `Ok, I'll give you private enterprise and capitalism,''' says Krzysztof Sliwinski, a journalist at the Catholic monthly ZNAK. ``Then you won't need political freedom and Solidarity.''

The strategy has resulted in the collapse of proposed roundtable negotiations. Not long ago, the union and the regime had hoped to start talks in October and reach quick agreement. But now, the two sides plan to meet only in a television debate. Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and Alfred Miodowicz, leader of the official communist OPZZ trade union, are to square off today in an event that promises more confrontation than conciliation. But haggling on terms of the debate continued until the last moment, so it was unclear whether the spectacle would come off.

Meanwhile, Rakowski has moved ahead with a series of controversial actions. The most spectacular was beginning bankruptcy proceedings for Gdansk's Lenin Shipyard, birthplace of Solidarity. Shutdowns of other large, inefficient factories are expected to follow.

``By closing the shipyard, Rakowski has put Solidarity on the defensive,'' says one pro-government Polish journalist. ``He's demonstrated that he is in charge and made it look like Walesa is against measures which would improve our economy.''

Less noticed abroad are a series of smaller reforms designed to have a positive impact on everyday lives:

Passports have become easier to obtain.

Farmers soon will be able to market their own produce directly, not through the inefficient state administration.

Restrictions on private enterprise and foreign investment are being dropped.

Expected loans from West Germany will be used to put more goods on shop shelves before Christmas.

``Past governments have waited and stalled when they attempted to reform the economy,'' government spokesman Jerzy Urban says. ``Rakowski wants action!''

This action includes widening the narrow popular base of the beleaguered Communist Party - without giving up its essential prerogatives. When Rakowski formed his government, he offered four ministerial posts to Solidarity supporters. But he ruled out the union's legalization, saying it would result in chaos in the workplace. Spokesman Urban says the opposition should ``think about changing its leaders'' since ``it is impossible to compromise with Walesa.'' Under these conditions, no opposition member dared enter the government.

``Rakowski wanted me to come in as an individual, with no social mandate,'' complains Witold Trzeciakowski, an economist offered the post of minister of labor. ``We first had to reach an agreement on trade-union pluralism, the necessary economic changes, and the opposition's fear of decisionmaking. Then we could talk about forming a coalition government.''

``Rakowski's put the cart before the horse,'' adds Janusz Onyszkiewicz, Solidarity spokesman. ``If he wants workers to work harder and to unify the country, then he must have an agreement with Solidarity.'' Such an agreement is possible, Solidarity leaders say, because Mikhail Gorbachev's ascension to power in the Soviet Union left Polish communists free to recognize an independent union. The hometown communists simply feared losing their own privileges. ``There have been a flood of letters from low-level party officials to the communist party daily Trybuna Luda,'' says Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a leading union adviser. ``They all say, `No to Solidarity.'''

Rakowski rode this swelling anti-Solidarity movement. In 1980 he negotiated with the union and developed a reputation as its most hard-headed opponent. When the party decided to fight, he was the natural candidate to lead the attack. ``Rakowski hates Walesa,'' says Bronislaw Geremek, another union adviser. ``He resents that this simple electrician could become so famous, and closed the shipyard out of personal hostility toward Solidarity.''

Few ordinary Poles are paying attention to these quarrels. To Jan Halinki, a research scientist, eased travel restrictions ``are the most important thing'' because he now can go to England and earn hard currency. To shoppers queueing in front of the paper store Papierwiczy on Switowokryzska Street, improved supplies are what counts.

``There hasn't been any toilet paper in the store for months,'' says Elzbieta Pieniak. ``The government says they'll solve the problem by 1990. They better keep that promise.''

While economists here say Rakowski will be able to offer a stopgap solution by importing toilet paper and other basic goods, the long-term outlook remains bleak. Poland suffers from a $40 billion debt. Attempts to restructure its production system are bound to be painful, bringing higher inflation and lower wages.

With winter setting in, there is little chance of prolonged labor unrest. Spring's arrival, however, could bring an explosion. ``People now are waiting to see what happens,'' says opposition activist Jacek Kuron. When they realize Rakowski cannot keep his promises, they will fight.''

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