Despite massive debts to the West and unhappy consumers at home, Poland is in what Western diplomats and bankers describe as a relatively "enviable" position in comparison to other countries in Eastern Europe.
Although the entire Soviet bloc is heavily in debt to Western treasuries and private banks for imported technology and industrial equipment, Poland, as one diplomat here put it, "is the only country that really is supported by both the Soviet Union and the United States."
Those comments help explain why - despite an estimateed $13 billion in debts to the West, the highest of any Soviet ally - Poland continues to be what the directors of West Germany's big Commerzbank recently called "a good credit risk."
From a purely economic standpoint, Poland has a solid record thus far of paying its debts in full and on time. Polish officials here say their troubled economy is now "in a good position to turn the corner" within a few years and should show a surplus by 1980 in the overall balance of trade with other nations, a statistic that has long been deep in red ink and is the source of Poland's biggest economic headache.
But the state of Poland's economic stability has far deeper political roots.
For the Soviet Union, this strategically located country of 35 million people in the heart of Central Europe is not only a vital ally in the Warsaw pact, it is also a country with the most volatile, outspoken and nationalistic population in the bloc. So when the Russians look at Poland - a country with more traditional and spiritual links to the West than the East - they undoubtedly see a delicate situation where flexibility is needed.
When Western bankers look at Poland and its debts, they also see Soviet gold reserves - probably the world's largest behind South Africa - to bail the Poles out if necessary.
For the United States, the independent-mindedness of the Poles has always had great appeal - though one that is dangerous to tamper with - as a troublespot for Moscow in the postwar era. There are also ethnic ties symbolized by the 6 million Polish. Americans in the United States.
Thus, the United States continues to extend credits of some $500 million a year for grain purchases to prop up Poland's serious feed and livestock shortages caused in part by a four-year string of bad harvests. Washington is also discussing a Warsaw proposal for a longer-term credit arrangement beyond the existing grain deal. This year, poland will import 7-8 million metric tons of grain from the United States and other countries.
Poland's massive debts were largely incurred to modernize its industry, which is now impressive in scope but still hampered by its very newness, by bottlenecks of inefficiency and by how that are not yet up to Western standards. That hampers Poland's ability to sell goods in the West for the hard currency it need to pay its debts.
Westerners generally, and a number of Poles, believe that Polish industry, like that of the rest of Eastern Europe, will never be very efficient because of political ideology that does not provide sufficient incentive for individual worker performance and that retains the image of full employment at the cost of too many people doing a single job.
Nevertheless, there are some important signs of progress here now, in the view of First Deputy Finance Minister Marian Krzak, who said, "It is fair to say that we are using some Western profit techniques in the import-export field" to boost incentives.
This involves mostly allowing plant managers some discretionary use of profits if they reach certain export goals, and creating "conditions for profitable investment" in domestic needs as well.
Instead of importing 2 million tons of cement each year from the West, as in the past, Poland is now exporting 2.5 million tons to the West annually, Krzak points out. Steel imports previously running at 3 million tons a year from the West, are now down to less than 1 million tons and should soon be erased as the big new steel mill at Katowice, built with Soviet and Western help, reaches 4 million tons annual output later this year.
By harsh restrictions on imports, Poland cut its deficit with the West from $3 billion in 1976 - Warsaw's worst year - to $2 billion last year. The first five months of this year show a further decline in the rate and Krzak says he is convinced the 1978 figure will be down "closer to $1 billion and by 1980 I presume our deficit will be gone and we will have a surplus."
Some Western officials doubt that Poland can keep such a tight hold on imports much longer, however, without starving industry of the raw materials it needs. There are other complications, too.
The Poles, for examples, have made impressive gains in turning out Polish built Fiat automobiles, jumping from 164,000 cars in 1975 to 279,000 last year according to official statistics. While this helps soothe the demand of Poles for cars, it also has made the Polish consumption of oil grow to levels beyond the small expansion of deliveries promised by the Soviets. The poles next year will have to pay more for Soviet oil, whose price is going up, and are now discussing buying the extra oil at higher world prices from Iraq, Iran and Nigeria.
Poland's exports to the West grew last year by 8 percent. But this is only half the planned growth and as long as Polish products have trouble finding markets in the West, the longer term problems will linger.
The immediate problem for Warsaw is to get over a difficult period that faces them now and in the next two years, when they must make heavy loan repayments. Poland is now seeking new credit on Western money markets that will help it both spread out earlier debts and pump new money into both export and domestic projects.
Krzak says Poland will seek "financial credits in the amount of about $1 billion this year and probably this will be repeated each year for the next few years."
By financial credits, Krzak says he means loans that are purely for financing a variety of investments or specific ventures but which are not tied to a Polish requirement to buy specific goods from the lending country in turn - such as U.S. grain or soybean credits.
One example, he says, is a new $70 million credit arranged by England's Barclays Bank for modernizing the tractor industry.
Krzak says Poland will not require an additional billion dollars this year because New York's Chase Manhattan Bank has already granted about one-fourth of this amount.
Sources here say Poland is now seeking to raise $500,750 million more among West European banks, and Polish officials do not deny that. One irony of the situation is that the Poles are trying to get away from dollar loans because of the American currency's sinking value overseas.
The West German banks are the ones with the strongest currency, and most money, and now hold the largest single part of the Polish debt to the West. But there is still widespread dislike of Germans here, lingering from World War II, and the Poles don't like much publicity about their financial dealings with the West Germans.
Thus, Poles tend to speak of French, Belgian and British banks and only reluctantly acknowledge that they also deal with the Germans.
Another problem, Westerners say, is that Poland's heavy debts have made some banks more demanding it terms of asking for Polish economic data, which frequently is not published, especially when the figures are bad.
Sources suggest there have been arguments within the ruling Politburo among factions who feel the Communist government should not yield such data and others who feel it is more important to have the loans.
Krzak says banks make varying demands, and "we are trying, and supplying, information. But of course there are some legal barriers. But it is not so big a problem that we can't handle it. Our tendency is to supply our partners with the information they need and the answers they seek," hesaid.