WARSAW -- The Polish people are the dreamers of Central Europe, and now they are asking America to help them become the doers.
By forgiving the $3 billion debt Poland owes America, George Bush has it within his power to show Poles the light at the end of their long economic tunnel. The debt was accrued by Communists who are now gone, and the forgiveness is owed to the new regime of Lech Walesa, who was demanding freedom for his country nine years before the other Warsaw Pact countries caught the fever.
It is a far nobler gesture to forgive Poland a debt it cannot pay than it was for Bush to forgive Egypt its $7 billion debt as the price of buying Egypt's loyalty in a war against Iraq. Poland's problem is that the new-found democracy there is last year's news, and that Bush is now more interested in what's happening in the Persian Gulf. The rest of the world is sadly familiar with that American pattern -- singing the praises of struggling countries when it is convenient, and then abandoning them when it isn't.
Walesa feared this lack of interest when he spoke in a moment of candor to us recently. "I've been afraid for many months now to turn the radio on and learn that countries such as China, Vietnam and Cuba have started reforms similar to those in Poland," he said. "Of course, we wish them well." But he knows that the "great mess" that comes of a struggle for democracy in other countries will distract the attention of the United States from Poland.
That is already happening, but because of a struggle over oil, not democracy.
Poland, which has done so much for America, can't afford to be neglected now. Polish immigrants and their descendants have played a vital role in American history.
President Bush, when the Poland's cause was ce'le`bre, recognized the bond between the two nations. "We are bound to Poland by a very special bond, a bond of blood, of culture and shared values," he said in a speech in 1989. And he ended that speech by saying, in Polish, "Nieck zyje Polska," let Poland live.
It is time for Bush to back his words with some action. Poland is vigorously trying to make a free-market economy work. But a million Polish workers are now unemployed, and prices are high.
American investors who look into Poland are spooked about the staggering $44 billion national debt that accumulated during the Communist era. Experts in Warsaw and Washington believe that if the United States forgives the $3 billion Poland owes America, the rest of the creditor nations will follow suit.
An American has played a key role as a consultant in charting an economic course for Poland, and he believes the debt must be written off. Harvard professor of international economics Jeffrey Sachs told us, "A lot of people in our government are wringing their hands. I wish they'd stop wringing their hands and do something. The main one is to get behind the cause of writing off this Communist debt. It's not payable and no one's trying to collect it. It has to be written down so that new private businesses can come in and invest with confidence."
Sachs believes the debt must be forgiven before Poland's parliamentary elections in April. That would "calm down the situation and give them a clean, fresh start," he said.
Recently resigned Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki told us recently, "There are very few nations on this planet that are treated by the Polish people so much without criticism as America."
He continued, "Many countries have already trekked the road from a free market economy to a centralized planned economy, but the reverse has never been tried before." So, he said, Poland is on a "great adventure."
The United States needs to join that trek with more than just good will.
1991, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.