In the holiday crush in Poland this week, thoughts will be riveted to ration not greeting cards. The weathermen have predicted that it may be the coldest Christmas for more than a decade. To make sure it’s not also the hungriest, the government announced last week that the meat and butter coupons that were to be issued nationally from Feb. 1 to offset staggering shortages would appear more than a month ahead of time in the Polish capital and in Gdansk, cradle of the workers’ rebellion that turned Poland topsy-turvy in August. In all likelihood the arrangement will be extended this week.
At first glance, food rationing may seem a minor misery when laid against the cataclysmic labor and political upheavals and the menace of Soviet intervention for nearly six months. The rub, however, is that rationing may bring only minimal cheer. It will probably prevent hoarding, stop the rich from snapping up the choicest goods and help to thin out the crowds laying siege to the stores. But since it can hardly be expected to iron out the kinks in the distribution system, Polish families may not get even the full amount to which they’re entitled.
Such a failure could spark the next challenge to Communist party chief Stanislaw Kania, who has already had to defend his fragile throne against union and Kremlin intimidation. In Gdansk last week, local Communist leader Tadeusz Fiszbach took foreign newsmen aside after a giant ceremony in the Baltic port—it marked the 10th anniversary of the massacre of 49 workers by Polish security forces—to describe the party’s coming battle to solve the food dilemma as “an uphill and crucial test.”
Indeed, there is already speculation that if Kania fails he will be replaced by a hard-line faction in the Polish leadership under Stefan Olszowski—an ambitious and humorless 49-year-old economist who is known to enjoy Moscow’s favor—at the party’s March congress. Olszowski, passed over for the top job when Edward Gierek was fired in September, has been waiting in the wings with his sidekick, Tadeusz Grabski, another top economist, for Kania to falter. So far, he has disappointed them. But his mild, awkward presence has made little impression upon Poles, who prefer their public figures to come in brighter wrapping. His chief appeal is summed up in a current joke: “Better Kania than Vanya” (the Polish nickname for the Soviets).
The crisis may have begun to recede with last week’s Gdansk rally. The ceremony, with its floodlights, wailing ships’ sirens, minute of silence, rollcall of the victims and elaborate outdoor mass in the snow-flecked dusk, was calculated to reach the hardest soul. The speakers—the charismatic Lech Walesa for Solidarity, party chief Fiszback and Franciszek Cardinal Macharski of Cracow-thumped away at the need to bury old grudges, show restraint and close ranks in the face of outside danger. The crowd of 200,000, and the millions who caught a truncated version of the event on national television, may have taken the point. However, hotheads within the Solidarity movement are already worrying at Walesa for being “too accommodating” to the authorities and are threatening wildcat action. The country stands very uncertainly on the threshold of a new year. — PETER LEWIS
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