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Uncertain Reforms

October 13, 1987

Poland badly needs the drastic economic reforms that were outlined to the country's parliament over the weekend. But if the reforms are real rather than cosmetic, the Polish people will be required to accept considerable pain in the form of higher prices and unaccustomed joblessness. There is real doubt as to whether the communist regime is prepared to make the sort of political concessions required to enlist public support.

The Polish economy was in a mess even before the emergence in 1980 of Solidarity, the democratic-minded trade-union movement. The ensuing crackdown on Solidarity made things even worse by triggering Western economic sanctions and destroying what little respect the communist leadership still enjoyed among Polish workers. The economy still suffers from inflation, low productivity and a staggering foreign debt.

The Polish government's prospects for putting things right have been improved by the end of the economic sanctions, the re-establishment of normal relations with Washington--and the emergence of a Soviet leadership that supports rather than opposes remedies that are at odds with traditional Marxism.

Acknowledging a crisis of confidence in the Communist Party, Polish leaders have unveiled a far-reaching program of economic reform that is intended, in their own words, to activate the "immense latent capacity" of the Polish people.

The plan envisions more decision-making authority for enterprise managers and less for the economic bureaucracy, which is to be scaled back. There are to be fewer restraints on small-scale private business. State-owned enterprises are to be made more competitive, with those that are too inefficient being allowed to go bankrupt. Wages are to be linked more closely to profitability. Price subsidies will be curtailed--a step that will trigger major increases in consumer prices.

Most Western economists agree that this is the proper medicine. But it demands considerable belt-tightening from the Polish people, whose willingness to make sacrifices has been deeply eroded by their loss of faith in communist leadership. The people are unlikely to cooperate unless they feel they have a genuine voice.

Knowing this, the plan will be approved by parliament only after the people have a chance to vote in an unprecedented referendum--not on whether the reforms should take effect, but at what pace. There is also talk of allowing "discussion clubs" in which people of differing views can express themselves, and of creating a second, popularly elected legislative body.

The communist authorities, however, appear to be trying to create the illusion of power-sharing without the reality. The new house of parliament, for example, apparently would be advisory. The parameters of independence to be enjoyed by the discussion clubs have not been spelled out. But one thing is clear: the Solidarity movement, which enjoys broad, genuine public support, would have no role--period.

Skepticism could prove unwarranted, of course. Implementation of the economic reforms may well generate pressures for political change that cannot be rejected without endangering the whole economic rejuvenation program. If so, that will be the regime's real moment of truth.

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