At the Rysia Street meat market, some 200 people stand in a line that stretches around the corner. Some have been here for hours, but the line does not move because there is no meat to buy. They are waiting on the chance that a new delivery will arrive soon, but from behind the locked glass doors, the butcher looks out at the anxious faces and shrugs sympathetically.
The scene is repeated at meat shops throughout the Polish capital, and it is worse in the countryside, where meat is even scarcer except among farmers who raise their own livestock.
Meat has been scarce here before, but residents of this city say that in relative terms, it is scarcer now than it has been in 10 or 15 years.
For Communist Party chief Edward Gierek, the lines and the sullenness of those who stand and wait represent a potentially explosive political time bomb that refuses to go away and could go off at any time with upredictable results.
Those lines also represent extraordinary and frustrating homemade dilemma for a government that has, in fact, accomplished much for its citizens over the past seven years.
There have been worker uprisings here three times in the last 21 years over unpopular government measures and meat-and-potatoe issues. Twice - in 1956 and 1970 - they brought down governments, a dramatic testimonial to Poland's unique ability to practice some kind of people's veto within the Soviet bloc.
The last protest came in June last year, when strikes and the burning of a Communist Party headquarters in Radom forced Gierek to quickly rescind a directive to raise artificially low meat prices by 70 per cent overnight. For Gierek, it was an economically justified move that turned out to be a political disaster.
No one will predict whether things will get out of hand again. Many here - average citizens, workers, current and former officials, diplomats and journalists - feel there will be more trouble. Even top government planners concede the situation cannot improve much in less than two or three years.
In recent weeks, there have been reports that coal miners in Silesia held brief work stoppages to protest the meat shortages. The government has denied this, but authoritative officials reveal privately that local Communist Party leaders in Katowice warned Warsaw that the miners' mood was angry and the special allotments of meat were sped to the area for several days.
Aside from shortages, Poland also has serious meat distribution problems, which adds to the belief that something is bound to get out of hand someplace. Yet, as one official says, "the thing that works best is the alarm system" that goes off when a trouble spot is sensed.
"You cannot underestimate the importance of the meat issue to Polish people," says former Education Minister and critic Wladyslaw Bienkowski. "If it weren't for that problem, the Gierek period could be said to have made serious achievements in development, growth and modernization."
"There have been gains in social services, too, in medical care and education," says another ex-official. "But unless they have meat on the table, they feel poor. You can't tell them they consume as much meat as the Swedes. They know their relatives in West Germany and the U.S. eat much more and it is more available even in East Germany and Czechoslovakia."
Many of those in line these days are elderly people, grandparents, who do the waiting while their children work. Among them are what the Poles call "stacz," or standers, hired for about $3 a day by a few families to wait and hopefully buy for them. There are also many workers in these lines, however, waiting with-grim faces before or after a full day's labor.
Last month, Stefan Cardinal Wysaynski - the powerful and popular leader of the Roman Catholic Church in a country where some 90 per cent of the 34 million people are Catholic - wrote a pastoral letter calling on the government to end citizens having to "waste their strength in hours of waiting on long lines."
The government and its critics agree that the price of meat is absurdly low. The official price for beef is about 60 cents a pound and pork is only a few pennies higher. Even these prices are calculated in the tourist rate for dollars, which can be traded here unofficially for four times the tourists rate, so that prices in real terms are a fraction of the official price.
The government wants to raise prices for several reasons:
To cut demand, which presumably will lessen the fear of shortages and stop people from hoarding and buying several pounds every time they reach a counter.
To help pay for producing and distributing meat, which now costs far more than the government collects for the product.
o encourage people to spend more on other goods where demand is lacking.
Yet, memories of June 1976 are vivid. The government not only is afraid to rise prices, but they now would have to go up by 120 per cent, rather than 70 per cent as was the case in 1976, although presumably it would be done gradually. A commission studying the problem is expected to report next year.
Meanwhile, Gierek is left contemplating some grim ironies that undoubtedly are also casuing concern in the Kremlin.
Riots demanding better living conditions brought Gierek to power in 1970 and by all accounts, the former coal miner from Silesia made the only politically feasible moves when he increased wages by about 50 per cent in his first six years, subsidized basic food prices at 1966 levels, and began a massive investment in Western technology to try to bring modern industry to Poland.
The idea was to keep the most independent-minded people in Eastern Europe happy and to pay back the huge loans from the West with the goods that would eventually pour out of Polish factories.
Along the way, however, Gierek and his planners began getting caught in an extraordinary version of "Catch 22".
Guaranteed annual wage increases of 7 per cent only whetted the Poles' considerable appetite for meat. While consumption rose from 116 pounds of meat per capita in 1970 to 154 pounds last year, it was still far less than Poles demanded or a primitive agricultural system could provide.
Bad luck also hit with four disastrous harvests in a row beginning in 1973 coupled with a recession in the West two years later.
The Poles were forced to import millions of tons of feed grains - 7 million tons last year, according to Planning Commissioner Stefan Hatt - at prices three times those of five years ago.
The grain imports, which are continuing at rates of more than 5 million tons a year, have pushed the cumulative Polish debt to the West to what Hatt says is close to $10 billion. Western sources put it at $12 billion.
Hatt confirms that the grim grain situation last year caused the Soviets to provide a loan of a billion rubles to Warsaw, but the Russians have mixed feelings, as Poles here know. While the Soviets do not want to see unrest in Poland that might require an intervention, they also do not have much sympathy for Polish meat-eaters, who already live considerably better than they do.
Poland, Hatt says, now spends 28 per cent of its annual budget on food subsidies. Despite this, and the heavy grain imports, agricultural output and the country's pig population are lower than three years ago.
The dilemma poses some mind-boggling problems for a Communist system.
Despite the Soviet dominance over Poland after World War II, the Communist government has never risked a takeover of all Polish farms. As a result, 80 per cent of all farmland in this country is still in private farms and many of them are quite small, run by farmers with deep attachments to their own land and profit incentives for tilling it.
The big state collective farms are more efficient, but party officials here say there is agreement in the Communist government that in order to find a way out, incentives - including higher profits - to private farmers will have to be increased. These incentives also include extending them pension rights, encouraging land expansion, easier credit and access to materials for expansion.
"This is not like other socialist countries," Hatt says. "You can't act by orders and directives. You need incentives . . . It is a very demonstrative country; when people say no, it's no."
The meat problem is inextricably linked to Poland's well-intentioned but hasty and perhaps over-ambitious plan to industrialize.
"We have American food processing facilites here of the highest know-how, "Hatt points out," but we cannot use it to full capacity because there is not enough meat due to poor agriculture."
On the one hand, famous Polish hams and bacon continue to be exported because Warsaw desperately needs the foreign currency to pay off its debts and is afraid it would lose markets if it diverted the meat to satisfy consumers at home.
Sources here say that about 30 per cent of Warsaw's export earnings are used to pay off interest on the money it has borrowed, an extremely high ratio.
On the other hand, the industry Gierek was counting on to earn most of that currency has been plagued in many cases by delays in construction, bad choices in product lines and lower quality goods.
"You've got to remember," one party official says, "that this is still our first industrial generation. Five years ago a lot of workers were still peasants on farms. That's very important in terms of low productivity at this point."
Still, a Communist official cautions, "this is a colorful and a complex country. So while there is lots of anger, there are also reasons why people will continue to accept the present leadership. There have been liberalizations, people are clearly free to Grumble openly. They are more cars now and travel widely."
Indeed, most critics here agree that Poland is not likely to face a rebellion against the system and that Gierek, while having lost authority and confidence, is generally viewed as a decent man. Most importantly, they say, no one sees any alternative to Gierek nor does anyone wants to provoke an outburst big enough to force a Soviet intervention. The general view seems to be to improve rather than change the system.
If there is trouble, critics believe, it will come over the bread and butter issues of average citizens rather than over any more abstract intellectual claim for human rights.
"After all," Bienkowsky says, "this is a country of 34 million dissidents," referring to the powerful church, workers groups and private farmers, a collection that makes Poland unique within the Warsaw Pact in terms of solid elements of potential opposition.
Yet Bienkowski believes that what is happening today in Poland is in fact a much deeper crisis and malaise than government officials even privately will concede or that the average person thinks about.
"As far as I can see," the 70-year-old sociologist says, "Poland is the least capable of finding a place for itself in the Soviet systems. I have always underlined that Poland is the oldest democracy in Europe, something that people in the West don't know.
"The socialist system is simply inefficient. The Poles aren't very good at being repressed, like the Germans or Prussians who are good at working in despotic systems. In Poland, the system will never give good results."