WARSAW -- State shops are almost empty of televisions and furniture and the normally booming black markets in gasoline and building materials have virtually disappeared. Headlines in the national press record populist pronouncements by official union bosses, while Communist Party and opposition activists, huddled in their separate camps, stand watch.
Three weeks into a new year, Poles and their rulers have slipped into one of the country's most familiar acts: waiting for price increases. Within days -- most likely on Feb. 1 -- the government of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski is expected to implement steep hikes in charges for basic goods, from meat and bread to coal, gasoline and cigarettes.
Sudden jolts of inflation are unsettling almost anywhere, but in Poland price increases have special political significance. In 1970, 1976 and 1980 Polish workers reacted to price rises with strikes and rebellions, pouring out years of pent-up frustration. Two of the upheavals caused the downfall of the communist leader, and the last led to the formation of the Solidarity independent union movement.
Consequently, the simple economic exercise of adjusting values in inflation has been converted into an elaborate political pageant, repeated every winter since 1982 with staging and security. It is the drama of a fearful communist government forced to seek the forbearance of a hostile and volatile society -- and it is the most glaring proof of its failure to achieve economic and political stability.
"The communists have learned their lessons about price increases the hard way and now they have a sophisticated formula for doing it," said Zbigniew Bujak, the Warsaw chief of the now-banned Solidarity. "They let people know way in advance, they give people time to stock up beforehand, they make a big show of compromise. But they are still very afraid of what might happen."
The process has taken on particular importance this year because of a major program of economic restructuring launched by Jaruzelski last year -- and growing signs that Poles are losing patience with the general's six-year-old rule. Under the "second stage of reform" begun in October, rates for heavily subsidized items such as coal, utilities and rent are to be doubled or tripled, while basic food prices are to go up an average of 40 percent, four times more than last year.
In balancing the demands of economic management with the threat of upheaval, the general until now has erred on the side of caution. Annual price increases since 1982 have been limited, heavy government subsidies have been maintained, and despite yearly promises to the contrary, average wages have been allowed to rise even faster than prices. The result is that the government has had to raise prices every year, yet has made almost no progress in balancing the shortage-plagued domestic market.
Even while seeking to break the cycle this year, Jaruzelski has followed the same elaborate script, mixing pleas for understanding with subsidies, and promises of political reform with elaborate shows of battle with officially backed unions.
The process expected to end with the changing of a handful of price tags in state stores began in October. At that time, authorities announced plans for price increases averaging 110 percent this year in basic foods and a tripling of rents and utility fees.
The announcement sparked widespread outrage and, eventually, failure for the government in a national referendum on its new policies. But it accomplished two results considered key to the price increase process: Poles quickly stocked up on such basic goods as flour, sugar and alcohol, meaning that eventual increases will affect consumers more gradually; and the government was able to carry out a strategic retreat, halving its planned price increases while still keeping them far higher than in past years.
The long advance warning and subsequent backing down have been repeated here several years in succession. The political rebellions of 1970 and 1976 have been attributed in part to popular anger over the suddenness of those price increases, which were implemented overnight. Moreover, authorities defused those crises only by revoking the announced measures.
Another official strategy has involved encouraging the communist-run official unions to voice popular sentiment against the price increases before accepting various government concessions.
This month, the unions, headed by a member of the ruling party Politburo, declared the proposed price rises unacceptable and warned that the reaction of society was "difficult to predict." The statement echoed union positions in each of three previous years.
One week later, newspaper headlines heralded the government's capitulation to the unions' modest demands. If the pattern is fulfilled, the state news agency will now release the details of the hikes on a Saturday night, allowing state television and security forces 36 hours to calm any outbursts of popular feeling before factories open.
Solidarity activists and many independent economists maintain that authorities save their most effective weapon of the price campaign for last: capitulative wage hikes above the level of prices for any factory considered a potential trouble spot.
"The steel mills, the coal miners, the metal workers will all be bought off with huge pay increases," predicted Bujak. "And the pay gap between workers in those sectors and those in less well-organized places, like shops or services, will increase."
At the root of the weeks of propaganda and maneuvering is a single, unanswerable question, quietly debated by political activists around the country: Will the workers rebel? This year, experts on all sides predict a grumbling passivity.
Part of what drives the annual price-increase drama here, however, is the acute awareness among government and opposition leaders that Polish upheavals can develop quickly and unpredictably -- and that the rebellions of past years took the country's elite by surprise.
"The opposition has the same problem as the party: neither has any real control over large masses of workers and peasants and youth," said a senior party activist, who asked not to be named. "So no one can predict for sure what the reaction of these people will be. The problem is that in a situation of big social conflict, Poland is without authorities of any kind."