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In Troubled Poland: It's Politics of Salami or Politics of Salome : Warsaw: Recovering from the devastating legacy of Communist rule, the Polish government tries to pick up the pieces and repair the economy.

November 11, 1990|Walter Russell Mead | Walter Russell Mead, the author of "Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition" (Houghton Mifflin), has been traveling in Europe since April

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY — The Communists have fallen from power in Poland, but the Poles have not lost their talent for bitter political humor. One joke making the rounds says that there are two solutions to the Polish economic crisis: one miraculous, one political. One solution would have the Archangel Michael appear over the center of Warsaw at the head of the millions of angels in the heavenly host. The angels sweep through every corner of the realm, renewing the infrastructure, paying the foreign debt and cleaning up the environment. That, say the Poles, is the political solution. And the miraculous way out? The Poles put their differences behind them and get down to work.

Under communism, the Poles had money, but there was nothing to buy. A year of market reforms has produced just the opposite condition: There is plenty to buy--oranges and bananas can be found in even the remotest of hamlets--but most Poles have no money. With wages at about $50 per month, and prices for most goods at world levels or moving rapidly up, many Poles are unable to do more than press their noses against shop windows glittering with long-dreamed-of consumer goods from the West.

The Poles had expected economic problems with the transition from communism--not quite as many problems as they are having, perhaps, but the economic bad news is not so surprising. More troubling to many Poles--who lack experience with the normal rough-and-tumble of democratic politics--is the split between the leaders of Solidarity. With Lech Walesa fighting for the presidency against the man he himself appointed to mastermind Poland's transition to freedom, Poles must choose between rival tendencies in the Solidarity movement.

There are, says one Polish journalist, two kinds of politics: salami and Salome. Salami politics is about raising standards of living: a chicken in every pot. Salome politics takes its name from the Biblical dancing girl who, given the choice of any gift in the kingdom, insisted on the head of John the Baptist on a platter. This is a politics of scapegoats and symbolism, and it is looming larger and larger on the Polish horizon.

The reason? There just isn't much salami to distribute--and some of the biggest victims of Polish austerity were the strongest supporters of the revolution.

Take Poland's farmers. The 2.2 million independent small farmers of Poland fought off the Communists for years, but market reforms spelled their doom. Tiny Polish plots tilled by horses and donkeys can't compete with the agro-industrial complexes of the capitalist West. In the long run, reform should make Polish agriculture more efficient and enrich the small number of canny farmers who manage the transition. But that's the long run--Poland's farmers are hurting now.

The same goes for the industrial workers, backbone of the Solidarity movement. So far, capitalism has meant wage cuts and unemployment for Poland's workers. The economic benefits remain far in the nebulous future.

Not surprisingly, farmers and workers are rallying to Walesa's attacks on the government's program of reform. Adding to the bitterness is the widespread evidence that the chief beneficiary of the revolution is the old nomenklatura . Who else, after all, has the money, the experience and, above all, the contacts, to prosper in an era of rapid change?

Not only in Poland but throughout the East Bloc today, ordinary people suspect that the old nomenklatura is using its enormous resources of networking, trickery and chicanery to get control of state enterprises under favorable conditions.

These suspicions are well-founded. Throughout the region the old elites are working overtime to use their experience in dealing with government bureaucrats, their knowledge of the enterprises under their control and the financial resources they amassed under the old regimes to feather their nests in the new.

Some of this is inevitable, and is even beneficial. Who, after all, is in a better position to value or manage these enterprises than those now running them? On the other hand, to many in Poland this looks like Communist injustice under a new name: Stir the pot all you want, but the same scum rises to the top. And there's worse to come. Poland's economy faces new shocks in January, when it must pay world prices--in dollars--for Soviet oil. More bad news: The Soviet Union is Poland's largest customer by far, and the accelerating disintegration of its economy will reduce Poland's export potential.

The salami shortage is increasingly bad; Salome is waiting in the wings. Poland's government--widely believed to be staffed by such unpopular types as liberals, Freemasons, ex-Communists, homosexuals and Jews--offers many targets for the politics of scapegoating.

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