Poland Adjusts to Reform

Growing unemployment is sowing seeds of disaffection with the country's movement toward democracy, and severely straining public confidence in the government

WLADYSLAW MASLANKA leans back in his chair. "The atmosphere among the people," he says slowly, "is worse than bad.

"We thought that Poland was governed badly under the communists and that the leaders had to be changed - but now we see that those who took their place are worse."

Mr. Maslanka, a wiry man with a weathered face, is a peasant farmer in this small village just south of Krakow.

He is called a "peasant-worker," because like most of Poland's more than 2 million private farmers, he also held a factory job for 30 years. The produce of his family's 7.4 acres of land is not sufficient to live on.

Maslanka typifies the frustration of ordinary Poles who have been hit hard by radical economic reforms. They are losing faith in the country's fragmented political leadership that is focused on bitter infighting.

"The politicians simply don't have a program," says Jacek Domanski, manager of a state farm near Wola Radziszowska. "It's just gigantic chaos."

According to an official survey published July 20, 30 percent of Poles said that life was easier under Mieczyslaw Rakowski, the last Communist prime minister before Solidarity swept into power in the 1989 election. The poll was conducted by the government's CBOS opinion research center.

"In the eyes of a steadily growing proportion of the public, the attraction of such basic goals as a market economy, democratic government, or rule of law is wearing thin," according to a report published by the World Economy Research Institute of the Warsaw School of Economics.

The consequences of market reforms have indeed been harsh for average Poles. Shops are stocked with goods, but many have no money to spend.

In May, the unemployment rate reached 12.2 percent. More than 2.2 million people have lost jobs with the closure or restructuring of inefficient factories and other enterprises.

Economic forecasters predict the number may rise to 3.5 million by the end of the year.

"We wanted to live in a normal state and not be beggars," says Maslanka. "I was in Germany - I saw that workers there have a chance to live. We don't have it in Poland. Before, we at least had the possibility to work."

Yet in a country where many basic foods were previously rationed, the availability of goods and services today is much better than before. There are indications that an almost comfortable middle class is beginning to be formed, particularly in major cities.

"We have a good life, but we have to work terribly long hours," says Anna Grazyna, a mother of two teenagers. She is a teacher and supplements her job with private lessons and translations. Her husband often puts in 12-hour days as a computer specialist.

In cities and towns, bright new storefronts and private restaurants and cafes enliven the streets. In Warsaw, many more new cars drive the streets, causing traffic jams.

Commercials for toothpaste and detergent choke television broadcasts. Both Warsaw and Krakow have baby-boomer radio stations dedicated to "classic rock-and-roll."

"No, you don't see the crisis on the street," says Ms. Grazyna, who works in a research institute. "But there's no money, really, for anything. No funding."

"My secretary makes 250 million zlotys ($180) a month," says a Westerner working in Krakow. "Her rent is 300 million zlotys. That means that all of her salary and part of her husband's go toward rent."

Local experts point to other recent developments that indicate that Poland's economy may be beginning to emerge from the extreme depths of its crisis. Last year's 70 percent inflation was far below the more than 600 percent inflation of the previous year.

The private sector's share of the economy is steadily growing. It stands at 25 to 26 percent. The gross domestic product plunged between 8 and 10 percent in 1991, but that was a smaller drop than the 12 percent decrease the year before.

"Now, for the first time you can ask the question whether Poland's economy has bottomed out," says one Western observer. "I think they're ready for a sustained boom."

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