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Fault Line Between Haves, Have-Nots Splits Poland

Economy: Successful businessmen praise post-Communist reforms. But factory workers, teachers and others are enduring near-poverty lifestyles.

April 18, 1999|MONIKA SCISLOWSKA | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WARSAW — They are two merchants, working side by side in a downtown mall.

One sells fruit juice from a small stand and weeps about her hardship. The other displays gold in a jewelry shop next door and gushes about his opportunity.

A decade after Communist rule ended and "shock therapy" reforms began transforming Poland's economy and society, the nation is deeply divided between thankful "haves" who praise the changes and bitter "have-nots" who are turning against the government.

"I cannot make ends meet," complains Grazyna Puchala, 49, wearing a thin jacket in the juice kiosk on the chilly sidewalk. "I can't even put aside money for shoes for the children."

Inside his spacious store, Jan Majal, 45, praises the market economy.

"People are free now to fight for their own prosperity," he says, beaming. "I am using my chance to prosper."

Not everyone is equipped for the struggles of the free market, however.

Enterprising Poles, often the young, are finding jobs with well-paying foreign companies and starting their own small businesses. Older people generally prefer the modest certainty of a state job or they lack the training to take a risk.

The difference is between prospering and lagging.

Public school teachers, for instance, earn about 600 zlotys ($155) a month--less than half the average monthly pay of $360. And workers in privatized sectors, like telecommunications, earn two to three times the national average.

Yet Poland's economy is the strongest among former Soviet satellites, growing more than 4% last year and attracting $10 billion in direct foreign investment.

Western governments and lending agencies like the International Monetary Fund praise the fiscal discipline of Poland, which joined NATO on March 12 and is negotiating to enter the European Union early next century.

The goal of EU membership is driving Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek's government to proceed with extensive economic changes that have been delayed in past years.

A new health care system that weans the sector from full government subsidy began Jan. 1. Other reforms this year include restructuring the government and schools and continuing to sell off some state enterprises.

Plans to revamp the ailing steel, coal and defense industries will cost tens of thousands of workers their jobs due to reduced production and more labor-efficient methods in those bloated sectors.

Already about 50% of Poles live in poverty, defined as a monthly income lower than 485 zlotys a month, or about $130.

"People see the reforms through their own pockets and don't care for the shape of the economy," says Piotr Lachowski, 29, a researcher at Warsaw Technical University.

While shops are filled with goods that were unavailable during five decades of communism, Puchala the fruit vendor notes that they are still out of reach for many Poles. "Prices are Western and earnings are Polish," she says.

She blames Finance Minister Leszek Balcerowicz, architect of Poland's economic reforms and a lightning rod for growing public criticism of government policies.

"Balcerowicz is responsible for the hard life people have," she says, her eyes filled with tears. "He plans the budget so taxes, rent and prices increase."

Also finance minister in the first post-Communist government, Balcerowicz is the only member of that administration in the current government. His name is linked forever with the reform program, first as its architect a decade ago and now as the austere administrator refusing to open the treasury for special-interest needs.

The state-run Center for Polling Social Opinion found that more than half of adult Poles surveyed do not trust Balcerowicz. It said his backing comes mainly from managers and intellectuals, while opposition is strong among farmers, workers and uneducated people.

Responding to the criticism, Balcerowicz describes opponents of economic restructuring as "forces of populism, egoism and simply of political stupidity."

"Poland is in a better situation than her neighbors, and we should strengthen this," he says.

U.S. Ambassador Daniel Fried praises Poland for achieving growth and creating wealth with a decade of reforms. The trick, he adds, is finding a balance that continues the growth while addressing the needs of communities.

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