Poland's new military rulers are seeking to spread the word that any economic retaliation by Western governments against the imposition of martial law will only result in greater hardship for ordinary Poles.
The official argument, now being made to Western ambassadors and journalists in Warsaw, is that continued American and West European aid to Poland is necessary to prevent the country from being pushed to yet greater reliance on the Soviet Bloc. It is suggested that such economic measures as have been contemplated by the Reagan administration may have the opposite effect to that intended--and prolong the period of martial law.
The opposite view, which is held by many Solidarity activists still at large, is that the West should break all economic contacts--not merely with Poland, but with the entire Soviet Bloc. Any other course serves only to prop up a bankrupt and patently inefficient economic system, the activists claim. One Solidarity supporter remarked: "The imposition of martial law has proved con- Regular communications with Poland remain cut. Washington Post correspondent Michael Dobbs is in Warsaw. clusively that communism is unreformable. Our only hope now is for total economic collapse throughout the Soviet empire."
Between these two extremes is the ordinary housewife, bewildered by what has happened to Poland during the past few months and condemned to standing in line for many hours a day in the freezing cold for dwindling quantities of goods. For most Polish women struggling to feed their families, the issue is not where food comes from, but how to get hold of it at all.
The differences of opinion among Poles reflect the dilemmas facing Western governments as they decide on their response to martial law. There are strong arguments for and against continuing aid to Poland.
There can be little doubt, however, that the Polish authorities are desperately anxious for all the assistance they can get. One of the first acts by Foreign Minister Josef Czyrek following the military crackdown of Dec. 13 was to summon Western ambassadors to plead for economic support.
He insisted that economic and social reforms begun in Poland in August 1980, with the founding of the independent trade union Solidarity, would be continued once law and order had been restored.
At the same time, Finance Minister Marian Krzak asked for a bridging loan of $350 million to enable Poland to pay outstanding interest on its $27 billion debt.
Underlining Poland's economic plight was the announcement after Christmas of a reduction in meat and butter rations. Officials said meat purchases from private farmers had fallen by 50 percent in comparison to December 1980. Poland does not have the hard currency to make up the difference by increased imports, even assuming that Western countries could be persuaded to sell more meat.
Political analysts in Warsaw believe that economic considerations were secondary when the decision was taken to impose martial law. What mattered was politics: the fear that the structures of the Communist state were disintegrating in the face of the challenge from Solidarity. Now, however, Poland's military rulers somehow must get the economy working again.
A Western ambassador said he had made precisely this point in a discussion with a Foreign Ministry official. "The easy part of martial law--imposing order in the streets--is over," he said. "Now comes the hard part, constructing an economic system that will function properly."
Advocates of economic change within the Polish establishment face an unenviable task. Inevitably, in the short term, changes will mean lower living standards, unemployment and discontent. The only way to cushion these effects is large-scale foreign aid.
A further complication is the campaign of passive resistance underway in many factories. Deprived of independent unions, workers are reacting in the way that has become traditional in Poland under a despised government: shoddy work, apathy, and indifference.
Viewed in this context, there is some truth to the government line that a cutoff in Western aid could make matters worse. The decision to impose martial law has closed the avenue of negotiation for dealing with labor unrest. The government's answer to an upsurge of popular discontent is greater repression.
Many Western diplomats in Warsaw, however, argue privately that the Polish authorities have only themselves to blame for this predicament. Given the public outrage in the West at the action taken against Solidarity, they say it is naive to expect that aid will continue as if nothing had happened.
There is some evidence that massive Western aid to Poland in the past has served to delay rather than encourage radical economic changes. Between 1957 and 1963, the United States granted Poland more than $500 million in various forms--and it has since been argued that this blunted the sense of urgency about change. In the 1970s, too, the government of Edward Gierek viewed Western credits as a preferable alternative to basic economic overhaul.
Solidarity activists believe that to prevent an open rebellion in Poland, the Kremlin will be obliged to maintain living standards here at a certain minimum level. Aid from the West, according to this argument, will only serve to reduce the economic burden on the rest of the Soviet Bloc.
In the end, whatever the wishes of governments, it is probably impossible to sever economic ties between Poland and the West. Polish industry is dependent on Western technology, spare parts and raw materials. Western bankers in turn need to keep Poland afloat if they are to get back money already lent.
"There used to be a theory about the Soviet Union being obliged to maintain a financial umbrella over Poland," a Western diplomat said. "But, whether we like it or not, we seem to be part of the umbrella as well."