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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Rubles? Who needs rubles?

The tiny white Polski Fiat with a lawn-mower motor putt-putted its way along the leafy lane and sputtered to a stop in front of the warehouse. Only then did we look at the gas gauge and see the needle hovering close to E. Neither of us said a word. It was one of the most humiliating ventures I'd ever been part of. Waiting in that prefab warehouse built with American money were soaps and meats and medicines, all sorts of necessities of life. My hard currency, American dollars, real money had been deposited into an account bearing my Polish friend's name. He could go in now and choose what he wanted, needed, had gone without for months, even years. My friend, a prominent and accomplished writer, with an earned doctorate and years of professional success, was thrilled beyond belief to find soap -- SOAP! -- and rice and tins of sardines. We left with good lean sausages, hams, some basic over-the-counter medicines like aspirin for his father, and probably even a few rolls of toilet paper, I don't quite remember. It was 1982. It was horrible. But wonderful. The Soviet-style and imposed, clunky economy in Poland in the 1980's failed. The country could not feed its people. "This is our last butter," he told me at dinner. And what he meant was, this is the end of the butter. For the month. Until I get more ration stamps. There is no more butter. At all. For two weeks. I stood one day in the market and cried. I wanted to buy bread. There wasn't any bread. Twenty years ago on Thursday, June 4, Poland voted for food. For bread. And butter. For dignity. Their money became real, convertible on the international market, useful. I read two articles today, June 2, 2009, from the Polish press, both from the same publication, Polityka. One is current. Poland is one of the three countries in the European Union with positive economic growth this year. They are struggling like the rest but surviving, holding their own. How ironic. The other article is from 1986. It laments Poland's debt crisis, even within the Soviet bloc. The Polish economy relied on the Russian ruble, and the community of other Socialist nations. I pasted a small part of it here, in translation... (The IBEC was the International Bank for Economic Cooperation, the Soviet bloc's financial connection to the 'outside' world and within its boundaries. CEMA referred to the community of Socialist nations within the Soviet bloc.) Here is an excerpt of an interview. [Question] "What credits has Poland obtained recently from IBEC and what is the role of the Bank in settling the Polish debt?" [Answer] "Because of the economic situation and particularly its complexity early in the 1980's, Poland was not able, and is still not able, to fully repay its indebtedness to its CEMA partners. Our bank assists importantly bygranting planned term credits to balance payments so that Poland's economict ies with its partners can develop normally. So that Polish import, which at the moment still exceeds export, can be paid for without hindrances. On anannual scale, credits for Poland make up 25 percent of the total sum of credits granted by us to CEMA countries. I would like to emphasize that recently, and especially this year, a favorable tendency has appeared, the tendency to reduce Poland's ruble debt to our bank. The basis of this tendency is the growth of export to CEMA countries due to the policy,conducted by the PZPR, of increasing Poland's share in the socialist international division of labor." Huh? That reads like ancient history now. It sounds like gobbledy-gook. To be honest, the response didn't exactly make any sense then either, despite the skill of the interviewer. How do you explain the inexplicable? These days, when I go to Poland, there are no humiliating trips to the warehouse. I buy all the butter I want, at the shop on the corner. (Don't tell my doctor.) The lawn-mower motors are saved for those machines used to cut grass. And the teeny tiny white Fiat has been replaced by a late model, sporty green Nissan with a gas tank that stays full. Happy anniversary, my friends! Ya done good!

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