WHEN the Polish government carried out currency reform Jan. 1, it opted for a gradual method rather than the ''shock therapy'' approach in which state price controls were rapidly lifted in 1990.
The currency reform involves renumbering the Polish zloty by introducing new bank notes over a two-year period. Essentially, the new notes cut four zeros off old bills, meaning 10,000 old zlotys are now worth one new zloty. New and old notes will both be legal tender until the end of 1996.
The reform is designed to allow the economy to function more smoothly. Instead of transactions of millions and billions of zloty, people can now operate using tens, hundreds, and thousands.
The challenge for the government was to carry out the reform in such a way that didn't scare the population, thereby fueling opposition to further reforms. And the first month has shown that confusion has been kept to a minimum. For the time being, all items are marked with prices in both old and new zloty.
''It has been implemented well,'' Finance Ministry adviser Stanislaw Gomulka says. ''People are still thinking and shopping as though nothing happened.'' That the reform is going smoothly is good news for the government. Shock therapy in 1990 had a devastating emotional effect on millions of Poles, wiping out savings and ushering in economic uncertainty. Any reform effort that increases anxiety could have a socially destabilizing effect. Many, especially pensioners such as Warsaw resident Grazyna Pasko, say they are reaching the breaking point. ''I have only a small pension -- enough for only bread and water after I pay my bills,'' Ms. Pasko says.
''Shock therapy is always problematic. It's better to go slow if the option exists,'' Mr. Gomulka said.