Asked 'Are You Better Off Today?' Many in Poland Reply, 'Yes, but ...'

Voters snubbed ex-communists last Sunday. The economy is growing, but it just doesn't seem to feel that way on the street.

Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"

That's the question Ronald Reagan put to the electorate when he ran for president of the United States in 1980.

Eight years after what politicians here refer to as the "Polish revolution," and four years after the post-Communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) came to power, Poles are considering a similar question: "Are we better off now?"

Even those who support the economic changes qualify their assessments carefully, in terms of "Yes, but ..." And the skeptics are very skeptical indeed.

In legislative elections last Sunday, the right-wing Solidarity Election Alliance decisively outpolled the ruling SLD and appears likely to lead the next government. Both Solidarity and the SLD, which includes former Communists, have supported the growth of private enterprise.

Tadeusz Smyka, a shoemaker who sells his wares at a flea market not far from Warsaw's main train station, at first declines to assess the political scene and the changes since 1989. He would only get angry, he says.

But then he changes his mind and runs after his visitor, catching up some distance from his booth, to avail himself of the opportunity to sound off.

"We're much worse off than before 1989. I have my own workshop in the center of Warsaw, but I have to come out in the cold to sell shoes at a flea market on weekends to make ends meet," Mr. Smyka, an ardent SLD supporter, complains.

"It's all [Lech] Walesa's fault," he adds, referring to the former president. "Everywhere Walesa went, he asked people to come to Poland to make money." As a result, producers from Brazil, Italy, and Spain dumped cheap shoes onto the Polish market, forcing him to cut his own prices dramatically. That, in turn, meant laying off all but one of the 14 employees Smyka had before 1989.

With less help in the shop, it's harder for him to retool quickly to respond to changes in styles, which further disadvantages him.

"The Communists weren't as effective in suppressing the independent Polish craftsmen as Walesa was," Smyka says. "For 45 years the craftsmen and farmers of Poland lived well, but the last five years have been enough to kill them."

His son and daughter now work for American firms in Warsaw. His daughter earns a good salary, 2,500 zlotys a month (about $715) at Hewlett Packard, the computer firm, which is paying for her English-language study and other education.

Both his children are more affluent than he is now, he says. But he seems not to make a connection between this development and former President Walesa's encouragement to foreign firms to come to Poland.

In broad terms, Poland has been one of the surprise economic success stories of Europe's former Eastern bloc. It is the only country whose economy is actually larger today than in 1989.

"The numbers are remarkably good," agrees a Finance Ministry official. "But they don't tell the whole story - they don't describe the reality of people's lives."

Jadwiga, for instance, a manager at an automotive-supply warehouse,who declined to be fully named, assesses her situation as she stands before her wares at the flea market.

"Things haven't really changed," she says. "I do what I did before, but I have to work more than before to maintain my standard of living. My salary isn't enough. Life has become much more expensive."

She supplements her income by selling automobile seat covers and other products at the flea market. It should be a profitable sector: In just the first seven months of 1997, Poland imported 300,000 cars. But Jadwiga says she doesn't notice any upturn in her business.

Over in the more affluent neighborhood of Ursynow, a man who wants to be called just Andrzej, and who now owns his own printing business after years of working in a large state-run firm, says frankly, "Life used to be easier. There was no need to work hard. I could go home at 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Now I have to work all day."

But his wife does not work outside the home, he volunteers during a brief interview in front of a grocery store. "We have enough to live on," he says, while adding that it would be be nice to have some more.

"And it is easier to shop. I'd rather not have a new wardrobe, for instance, if I have to wait all night in a [line] for one."

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