RIGHT along, a few true believers have said Poland would show the rest of Eastern Europe that there is economic life after communism. It now appears they were correct. Despite intermittent strikes over the last three years - including a miners' strike in progress - and howls from consumers who saw prices dart upward, the Polish economy has been finding its footing.
The "shock treatment" recommended by Western advisers - though denounced elsewhere - has helped set Poland on track toward capitalism.
At present, according to government figures, private industry accounts for a little over half of the gross domestic product. Next year, the Polish government plans to accelerate its privatization program. In 1993, the country should generate positive economic growth for the first time since leaving Marx behind. Officials' estimates are in the range of 2 percent. But Planecon, an economic consulting firm in Washington that closely follows Eastern Europe, projects growth of 4 percent to 5 percent.
The engine of growth in Poland is fundamentally the readiness of countless Poles to try their hand at free enterprise. Many of the small mom-and-pop operations of the early years of economic restructuring have matured into mid-sized businesses that employ 50 to 100 people. Even many of the big state-run companies have begun contributing to the economic upturn, as their managers figured out how to adapt to the new era by developing new markets.
Foreign investment is playing a role too. Partnerships with Western firms have helped many Polish companies tailor their goods for the foreign market. Exports have nearly doubled since 1988, with most of the commerce going West.
All is not rosy. Inflation hovers at 40 percent; debt and budget-balancing problems remain. But Poland's overall performance has pleased international lenders. It could become a model for neighboring nations who have had more trouble sticking to austerity programs. Perhaps even for Russia.
Poland, however, has advantages the giant to the East can't claim, such as ethnic homogeneity and an unbroken tradition of private ownership in agriculture. And Poland has never had to carry the burden of thinking of itself as a "great power."
Its economic turnaround is, however, becoming a great story, and the staying power of its people and its government deserves praise.