It was to have been the price increase to end all price increases when the Polish government a year ago took advantage of martial law repression to jam through markups as high as 400 percent on some basic commodities.
But the price shock failed to jerk Polish markets into balance. In fact, it now appears that the government of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski undercut its intended effect by allowing wages and social benefits to rise rapidly later in 1982.
Pleading the same economic dilemma this year as last--billions of loose Polish zlotys with little to buy--Warsaw authorities started last week to raise prices again. The increases are generally less brutal this time, averaging 15 percent overall. Anxious to avoid provoking new labor unrest, the government has frozen the price of food (except for deep-sea fish). But such key expenses as rents, fuel and rail and bus fares are going up. The cost of alcohol and cigarettes will be substantially higher, with the price of alcohol going up 25 percent and the price of cigarettes doubling.
A look at what went wrong in 1982 suggests a failure of nerve by Poland's Communist leadership in restructuring the economy. Apparently worried that the trauma of large price increases could upset the peace, officials allowed wages and benefits to spurt up in the second half of the year.
Exactly when the increases were authorized is unclear. The minister of prices, Zdzislaw Krasinski, gave two different accounts in two articles in the same recent issue of the Polish weekly Polityka.
In any case, according to the minister for economic reform, Wladyslaw Baka, the final quarter of 1982 saw industrial wages growing 24 percent over the previous quarter while productivity in the same period rose only 12 percent.
The average monthly income grew 50 percent during the year to 11,300 zlotys ($135 at the current official exchange rate), but national output declined. This widened the gap between the money Poles have to spend and the goods available to buy.
At the end of last year the national bank calculated this gap, or inflationary "overhang," at $6.7 billion and said it was expanding swiftly. It is to soak up this excess spending power that the new price increases are being introduced.
Admitting that authorities last year were more concerned with destroying the remnants of Solidarity and maintaining a surface calm rather than pushing through a difficult long-term economic reform plan, Czeslaw Bobrowski, chairman of Jaruzelski's Economic Advisory Council, recently told a Polish youth paper: "Generally during martial law, the government was overwhelmingly motivated by political and social factors, more so than was favorable for the economy."
One of the initial justifications for martial law, with its much publicized economic discipline measures, was to get the Polish economy working again and healthy enough to sustain the initially costly impact of decentralizing reform measures. But overall economic performance in 1982 in fact turned out worse than in 1981.
National income dropped 8 percent in 1982, to the 1973 level, according to official statistics.
One bright spot has been coal production, perhaps the most crucial element in the economy. Coal provides the bulk of the country's energy and also serves as one of its major exports and thus a principal source of hard currency.
Spurred by extremely generous salaries boosted to nearly three times the national average, miners last year dug out 11 percent more coal than in 1981.
A number of other industrial sectors also started reporting an upturn in the fourth quarter of 1982, prompting government officials to declare that the three-year decline in production has bottomed out. They also point to a $400 million trade surplus with the West as evidence of success in reduced reliance on expensive western imports.
But the economy is still a long way from recovery. Such key areas as chemical production and light industry remain depressed. Essential consumer items, particularly shoes and clothing, are in short supply.
Agriculture, too, poses deep frustrations for the government. Farmers are still refusing to deliver grain, preferring to hoard supplies as a hedge against inflation or to sell on the higher-priced black market.
Without Solidarity to blame anymore, officials have fixed on western economic sanctions as the prime impediment to recovery. Foreign Minister Stefan Olszowski appealed to the United States again last week to lift the sanctions, if only to facilitate repayment of the $25 billion owed to western governments and banks.
But the main brakes on Poland's economic turnaround seem to be domestic. Poland is caught in a self-limiting circle: chronic shortages lead to rationing, which causes more centralized economic control, which impedes decentralizing reforms.
Half of all consumer goods continue to be rationed, according to the Ministry for Domestic Trade and Services, while the Ministry for Materials Management reports that the list of raw materials and fuels under central control expanded from 88 items last year to 186. One of the country's largest job growth fields has been the bureaucracy handling ration cards, which now employs 264,000 people.