WARSAW -- The Persian Gulf crisis and Soviet cutbacks in deliveries of oil and gas have combined to threaten Poland with crippling energy shortages this fall and winter.
Clouding the picture still further, Polish officials say that the continuing political confusion and economic disarray in the Soviet Union -- Poland's largest trading partner and purchaser of one-fifth of Polish exports -- is fostering a sharp decline in Soviet imports of Polish coal, steel and copper.
The waning of Soviet trade will be felt acutely throughout Polish industry but is likely to prove disastrous for manufacturers of heavy machinery and high-voltage electric equipment, Foreign Trade Minister Marcin Swiecicki said recently. Many of these producers make goods for which there is little demand outside the Soviet Union or its former East European client states, and they are already operating at a loss.
The double dose of economic woe comes at a time when Poland, Eastern Europe's largest and most debt-encumbered nation, is struggling to climb out of a recession that in the first nine months of this year has put more than 800,000 Poles out of work and shrunken industrial production and incomes by a third.
In the past, Poland had obtained about 90 percent of its annual 98 million-barrel oil needs from the Soviets, and before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait had been counting on Baghdad to provide -- at no hard-currency cost -- the remaining 10 percent for this year.
Iraq had promised to supply 7 million barrels of crude oil as payment on a $500 million debt for tanks and other weapons bought from the Poles. Only about a quarter of that arrived before the Aug. 2 invasion.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union is 21 percent behind on 1990 fuel deliveries to Poland. After the gulf crisis began, Poland -- along with Hungary and Czechoslovakia -- asked Moscow to catch up on late deliveries, but Polish officials say Moscow has refused. Worse still, government officials here say, the uncertain Soviet domestic situation and Kremlin demands that new foreign oil sales be paid for in hard currency will mean that inter-government oil transactions between Moscow and Warsaw "will amount to zero" in 1991.
As for natural gas -- for which the Soviet Union is Poland's only foreign supplier -- inter-government contract sales are scheduled to be cut by more than a third next year, forcing some Polish industries to shut down, according to Polish industry minister Tadeusz Syryjczyk. Polish officials say they may be able to make up part of the shortfall by buying from individual Soviet republics and from semi-autonomous Soviet oil and gas enterprises.
"The Soviet side has suggested that in order to get any oil supplies, Poland should establish direct contact and cooperation with the republics and distributors interested in this," said Jerzy Osiatynski, head of the Polish Government Planning Office. The additional cost to Poland of paying hard currency for its energy imports next year is estimated at $3 to $4 billion, the planning office said.
The new reluctance of the Soviet Union to supply oil and gas to Poland and its other former satellites stems in part from Moscow's announced intention to sell its resources only for hard currency and at world prices beginning next year.
In years past, member-nations in the Soviet-dominated Comecon trading bloc could count on Soviet oil and gas at bargain prices, and countries such as Poland bartered manufactured and farm goods for petroleum products. But with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and with Moscow's economic problems worsening as it tries to implement a free-market system, the Soviet Union is no longer willing to trade oil for Polish potatoes.
International oil market analysts also have been reporting serious problems in the Soviet Union's capacity to export oil -- at any price. Industry specialists said last month that the Soviets had even begun importing gasoline -- for the first time since World War II. Analysts said the cause of the production shortfall appears to include labor troubles and lack of hard currency to invest in production hardware.
Leszek Plodczyk, head of Poland's largest state-run fuel distributor, said a 33 percent increase in the price of gasoline that went into effect Sept. 1 has slowed consumption somewhat, but pump rates here -- $1.40 a gallon -- remain well below those in Western Europe. The price is expected to double by the end of the year.
Polish officials have asked the United States and other Western nations to help offset losses caused by Poland's support of the embargo against Iraq. Although these officials say they have been assured of some aid, no firm commitments have been announced.