Sounding through the echoes here following last month's restless Polish Communist Party congress is the question: Will Poland take up economic reform?
Will it go the way of Hungary, relaxing its centralized plan and giving more freedom to individual enterprises? Or will it continue to muddle along under fixed targets set at the top?
The old questions are being asked here today with fresh urgency.
This is largely because the Polish economy is in sorrowful condition, deteriorating at a faster clip than Poland's Eastern European partners. Industrial production reached only 2.6 percent last year, far short of the planned 4.9 percent. Worse, national income fell 2 percent, only the second time in two decades an Eastern European country has announced an actual decline.
Further, Poland's financial debt to the West now exceeds $18 billion, and government officials here estimate they will need another $5 billion or $6 billion this year largely to pay back some of the old loans.
Moaning and groaning about the economy has been commonplace among the Poles for years. It seems to go with the long meat lines that people in this country of 35 million still have to endure.
But the complaining acquired a certain legitimacy when leaders from the Polish Communist Party, gathering for their once-every-five-years congress, started griping, too. During the meeting the general public was treated to a five-hour live television transmission from the congress hall where almost every aspect of the government's economic performance was openly criticized.
These angry expressions appeared to precipitate the fall of Prime Minister Piotr Jaroszewicz, a move that confounded authoritative forecasts there would be no surprises.
The removal of Jaroszewicz came partly at the apparent cost of the simultaneous ouster from the Politburo of Stefan Olszowski, who was thought to be a proponent of economic reform.
The message contained in these surprise moves seemed to be a consolidation of moderation, according to diplomatic observers. The end result has apparently been to leave party chief Edward Gierek, 67, in a firm control as ever.
Punctuating this impression was the naming of Edward Babiuch as the new prime minister. Babiuch is a close political associate of Gierek's, from the same mining area in Silesia in southern Poland as the Party Chief.
All of which suggests to some that Gierek is now better poised to move toward changes if he wishes.
But there is widespread skepticism on this point. "Congresses come and go and the system stays," said a spokesman for Poland's powerful Catholic Church, which has been increasingly critical lately about the government's handling of the economy. "I don't expect anything will change."
These doubters argue that Gierek is not about to renounce strategies he himself introduced 10 years ago. The recent party purges they regard as efforts to shuffle off responsibility or economic troubles, not a signal for policy shifts.
While party officials indulged in self-criticism during the congress, it is noted they offered no particular hope for things improving. In fact, party officials have made a point of not arousing expectations of major economic change. Rather, their message has been for Poles to face up to economic austerity and soldier through.
"No big changes should be expected," one source close to the leadership said in an interview.
Any reform effort in Poland, experts say, still face determined bureaucratic resistance and ideological opposition from some quarters of the party. There is also the Soviet factor to consider.
In the past, Poland has bought relative autonomy in domestic affairs by hewing to Soviet foreign policy. But in view of current East-West strains, the Soviet margin for tolerance may no longer be there, Eastern European experts say.
There appears to be general agreement among those both inside and outside the party that Gierek has, if nothing else, managed to buy time. This is important in a nation where unpopular government measures and meat-and-potato issues have led to worker uprisings three times in the last quarter century.
One of those uprisings brought Gierek to power in 1970. Since then the government has actually accomplished a good deal.
One in every 20 households owned a car ten years ago. This Year it will be one in five. Nine million Poles moved into new apartments during this period. Industrial production rose 130 percent. National income jumped 85 percent. Social benefits climbed four times what they were.
But this progress led to what is now a dilemma for the government. It created the expectations and a deep-seated fear of backsliding. Moveover, much of the boom came during the early part of the decade when the government borrowed and invested heavily. Recent years have provided leaner results.
Polish officials tend to blame the slowdown on factors outside the system, such as a worldwide economic slump. Another favorite excuse is bad weather, which ruined five harvests in the last six years and forced Poland to spend $2 billion in scarce foreign currency for U.S. grain.
Western experts instead lay the blame on Poland's own stultified central planning system. The energy and transportation fields have been particularly handicapped by poor management and confusion. One official estimated planners now are charged with coordinating more than 200 separate factors.
Agriculture is a special problem. Despite the postwar Soviet dominance over Poland, the Communist government has never risked a takeover of all Polish farms. Consequently, there are 3.5 million private farms -- or roughly 80 percent of all Polish farmland -- still in private hands. Many of the farms are quite small and inefficient.
On top of it all, the government is saddled with a weighty-debt burden to the West. Repayment ate up 65 cents of every hard-currency dollar the country earned last year, and this year it is expected to devour 75 to 80 cents.
The result is what one Polish official termed a "vicious circle" in which to limit the debt, Poland has tried to cut imports and investment, thus hammering industrial production and further arousing consumer discontent.
"We have reached a certain threshold, a wall," said Zvgmunt Szeliga, deputy editor of the main Polish weekly Polityka. "We face no options other than to effect some changes. Never before has there been such a tension for reform."
There have been some minor moves toward economic decentralization. Small shops and some large food stores have been permitted to set their own prices and wages. But officials say to expect economic improvements rather than major changes in the system.
The government's sights are said to be set on 1983, a year when the economy is expected to take a turn for the better because many big capital projects should be ready. Between now and then Poland will be trying to cut its trade deficit by spurring exports.
The risk still facing the government is that widespread economic discontent among Poles could explode again at any time with unpredictable results.
There are recurring reports in this country of strikes and slowdowns in individual enterprises, generally protesting food shortages. But the government appears to have learned well from past experience and reportedly has forces of troubleshooters ready to defuse inflammatory situations.
It also seemed to be courting the Catholic Church's good will in this regard when last month it compromised in a dispute about a proposed new road near Poland's biggest national shrine, Czestochowa.
The church, in fact, could be decisive in fixing Poland's economic fate. Said one Warsaw resident, with only a touch of disbelief, "Maybe we'll have a good harvest this year. After all, the pope is Polish."