The Grumbling in Poland

POLAND got off to the quickest start among former East-bloc nations in pushing toward a capitalist democracy. It adopted the "shock treatment" of immediately freeing prices, freeing trade, and selling off state-owned businesses. Alas, the shock treatment is not a short treatment, and the political costs are mounting.

It's not that Polish shoppers, at least in the big cities, haven't seen an increase in the goods available, or that private business hasn't been growing. The number of private companies in Poland doubled last year. But the new commercial activity has barely begun to make up for the lost commerce with the old Soviet bloc.

Disgruntlement among Poles, whose country has been praised in the West for biting the bullet of reform, is a warning to those in Russia and other points east where difficulties are even greater.

The warning should also extend to Westerners intent on moving reform ahead. Aid to Poland, particularly the outpouring of "technical assistance," has, in Polish eyes, sometimes been more a burden than a help. Much of the money to help Poles reorganize their economy goes to Western consultants who seek out projects that will net them lucrative contracts with aid agencies in Washington or elsewhere.

Too often, Polish critics say, the consultants don't understand the problems on the ground and don't ask for input from Poles. It's paternalistic, they say.

President Lech Walesa, in a bitter speech before the Council of Europe, accused the West of being primarily interested in "draining our domestic markets." He said Poles could decide to turn again to autocracy.

Mr. Walesa and other politicians in Poland are tailoring their words to appeal to the complaints of their constituents. That's democracy. But if Poland's policies turn away from the reforms so unpopular among Poles and so applauded by the West, the investment dollars tied to reform could dry up.

To avert that, Poland needs leaders with the vision to see beyond these extended rough times and Western friends willing to be partners, not paternalists.

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