Prices were raised sharply in Poland on January 30, by an estimated 40 percent, and hell did not break loose. Times have changed: In 1970, after a bloody battle, Polish workers won a veto over their country’s pricing policy. Six years later they confirmed this power. Then, in the glorious summer of 1980, provoked once again by a price hike, they conquered the right to form independent unions. True, two years later the Poles had higher prices pushed down their throats, but that was just after Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski’s tanks had performed their ruthless job. Now, although the regime still rests ultimately on the tanks and on Soviet proximity, the political situation is quite different. Poland today cannot be likened to the Chile of Gen. August0 Pinochet. Indeed, judging just by the freedom of expression in the official press and not the numerous underground publications, it can still give the Russians quite a few lessons in glasnost.
Has General Jaruzelski, then, succeeded in his task as “normalizer”‘? Very far from it. His economic reforms, of which the price increase is a part, are being introduced in the worst possible circumstances. The foreign debt has climbed to $37 billion. At the turn of the year the shelves in the shops were empty and the lines in front of them lengthened to recall the darkest days of shortages. Poland is one of the rare countries in which the dollar is eternally rising; the confidence of the population in its own zloty is so small that it now keeps 58 percent of its savings in foreign currency. To prevent price changes from leading to explosions of discontent, the government had to reduce some of the proposed rises and to increase, simultaneously, financial compensation. To keep things quiet now it is granting additional wage concessions in plants with workers threatening to strike.
The officials themselves do not expect spectacular results from the half measures imposed by the government. It’s sweat and tears without the prospect of reward. As one historian put it, in an open letter addressed to both Wojciech Jaruzelski and Lech Walesa, the mood in Poland is one of “hopelessness, disenchantment and apathy, with a drunken haze allowing a flight from reality.” He wrote this letter because, like so many people, he is convinced that without some sort of social contract Poland will drift, rather than plunge, into economic, ecological and political disaster.
This, of course, is a gloomy picture that needs some shading. Poland deserves a closer look for many reasons. The story of Solidarity, or more precisely of the revival in Eastern Europe of an autonomous labor movement, inter- rupted brutally, is still very far from finished. Besides, for all its peculiarities, Poland allows us to grasp better some of the issues facing the Soviet bloc, as a whole. In particular, it now illustrates dramatically the central dilemma of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. To break the backbone of bureaucratic resistance to his reforms, the Soviet leader needs pressure from below, the backing of the workers, and he knows it. Poland had such a labor movement; its equivalent in the Soviet Union is barely taking its first steps. Yet can the system put up with an autonomous movement that genuinely represents the interests of the workers? Finally, Poland is ahead of the rest of the Soviet bloc in many respects, and is more articulate in its political discourse–which raises some questions, notably over the tensions brought about by a new privileged elite, which the Hungarians today and the Russians tomorrow must answer as well.
Divided They Drift. To understand why the lines lengthened and concessions proved of no avail, we must go back to last November, when Poland set yet another precedent for the Soviet bloc–an unsuccessful electoral test. Poles were asked to approve, in a referendum, a package of political liberalization and economic reforms, including much stiffer price increases than those finally introduced. One-third of them simply stayed at home. The surprise was that over a third OK those who bothered to vote said no. This would not have mattered if the government had not set the hurdle so high–requiring the approval of half the registered electorate. More than 42 percent was not enough. The plan was rejected and the authorities had to switch to the milder, watered-down current version.