Poland--The Taste of Ashes | The Nation


Poland--The Taste of Ashes

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`A Nation of Shopkeepers'?

Lodz, with its many factories, is not the gloomiest area. The situation is much more desperate in smaller towns like Mielec or Swidnik, linked to one industry and often connected with arms making. Yet to focus the light only on these sore spots would distort the picture. The plentiful supply of goods--the fact that, if you have money, you can buy anything in Poland, ironically including kosher food, without standing in line--is described as a great conquest even by those who find it difficult to make ends meet.

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

The unquenched thirst for consumer goods is a notable feature throughout Eastern Europe.The heart of Warsaw is a vast bazaar. Next to the Palace of Culture, a skyscraper in Stalinist gothic, there are now two tentlike stuctures, one housing a supermarket, the other, small shops. The vast terrain is surrounded by a wooden fence decorated with painted trees. Inside is Eastern Europe's souk, a warren of booths, stalls and kiosks offering cheap manufactured wares from all over the globe. The novelty is the spread of decent restaurants, not just McDonald's, as well as the emergence of sex shops. Otherwise, despite the development of a normal commercial network, one can still see in Warsaw, say, lavatory fixtures being peddled at a street corner straight off a truck or meat sold in the open from a table on Wiejska Street, next to the houses of Parliament.

This commercial revolution was designed, successfully, to break the state's control over trade. But what about the next stage on the agenda--capital investment? Statistics published while I was in Warsaw provide some economic and social background necessary to tackle this question.

For now at least, the economic downturn has bottomed out. Since April, production has even been rising slightly, and for the year as a whole it should equal the volume of 1991. Foreign trade shows a surplus. But this is as far as the good news goes. Even if the fragile recovery continues, unemployment is expected to climb from the present 13.6 percent of the work force to 18 percent by the end of next year. And the long-term decline in production has been halted at a very low level: Industrial output is one-third lower than in 1989, and real wages have dropped by 30 percent. Even if slightly exaggerated, because of the mysteries of the private sector, the figures are dramatic. How has the post-Communist regime survived three years of such belt-tightening?

It went through the big economic transformation of 1990 driven by the euphoria of victory and squandering the good will of Solidarity. Last year the discontent grew. This past summer Poland experienced a wave of strikes: thirty дeight in July and thirty-five in August, most notably in the copper mines and in the car factory taken over by Fiat. The stoppages, I gather, were not as unsuccessful and unpopular as depicted in the Polish media (the Western press--guess why?--is no longer keen on Polish strikes).

This interpretation was confirmed by many sources, including Ewa Spychalska, the new leader of the ex-Communist union confederation, the O.P.Z.Z. (with a membership now more than twice that of Solidarity!). Tall and fortyish, Spychalska started professional life as a teacher and switched to become a building technician when she became the main breadwinner in the family. She did belong to Solidarity, like so many millions, but was also a Communist Party member and has no intention of "apologizing for it for the rest of my life." She argues that, while the workers did not get all they had asked for, the summer strikes strengthened unity of action among the rank and file and forced the government to seek a dialogue with all unions, not just with Solidarity. The government, while unyielding during the strikes, may have been prompted by the discontent to look for a deal with the unions through an enterprise pact. Which brings us back to the transfer of ownership and the search for new forms of capital accumulation.

Power and Property

Even before 1989 the bulk of land belonged to smallholders. Now 80 percent of retail trade and about three-quarters of the building industry is also in private hands. In manufacturing, however, the proportions are still the other way around. The Ministry of Property Transformations is putting the last touches on Poland's version of "universal privatization." The plan should involve 600 of the country's most attractive state enterprises. Ownership of these will be divided among twenty or so National Investment Funds to be run by management teams, quite a few of them foreign. Adult Poles will be allowed to buy a voucher for shares in these funds at a fixed price equivalent to a tenth of their monthly wage. The purpose of the operation is to create capitalist interests, to get foreigners involved, to give some people a real stake in private industry and to give the bulk of the population the illusion that they were not completely robbed.

For other companies the government is introducing a "pact on the state enterprise in the process of transformation." This is expected to give labor unions some say in the way their plants are privatized and, during the transition period, to limit the handicaps public enterprises suffer (unlike private companies, they must now pay a "dividend" to the state and a special tax on certain wage increases). The project, still to be voted on by Parliament, is sponsored by Jacek Kuron, the veteran dissident who is now Minister of Labor and Social Affairs. Kuron has given up his old socialist ideals, but not his way of life. The plain-speaking minister dressed in blue jeans is still the country's most popular politician. He admits that to combine a "social contract" with "primitive accumulation" is not easy. He believes he can win over the unions, including the O.P.Z.Z., but he also believes they have little influence.

Let there be no illusion. This is not Solidarity returning to its egalitarian origins or its ideas of self-management. Indeed, Kuron is backed by the most monetarist ministers in the government who, like himself, opted for the Balcerowicz shock-therapy plan yet fear that privatization will run into trouble if it is seen by the workers as daylight robbery.

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