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Poland: Gdansk Shipyard Goes From Fame To Ruin

Warsaw, 26 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- That fame can turn the head of an individual is a well-established and even entertaining fact. Think of how the capricious behavior of primadonnas and maestros captivates the popular press.

But some analysts would say that large companies and enterprises can also suffer from the consequences of fame. Take Poland's renowned Gdansk shipyard, for instance.

The yard was the birthplace of the Solidarity union, and it saw the rise of Solidarity's formidable leader, Lech Walesa. Walesa and his union were a spear aimed at the heart of communist Poland, and it's arguable that their influence and inspiration helped sweep away the old order across most of the continent.

In those stirring times the yard's role as a place to build ships was almost overlooked. But in today's world of economic realism, the yard is a shipwreck itself. The yard was declared bankrupt last August, with debts totalling 415 million zloties (about $149 million) of which 127 million zloties was owed to the state. And the debt has been rising steadily.

Critics of the yard say it has been unwilling to "grasp the nettle" and to carry through a restructuring to compete in the new economic conditions. Other yards and other enterprises, not so loaded with political laurels, have done better, the critics say.

With something of their old activist spark, Gdansk shipyard workers yesterday occupied the office of the provincial governor, Henryk Wojciechowski. Over megaphones the workers announced to passersby that they would be staying until there is a final decision on the yard's future.

They want government guarantees so that they can continue building ships while a way is found to rescue the yard permanently. The government, for its part says its casting around for likely investors, but has itself been unwilling to guarantee further bank loans, with Finance Minister Grzegorz Kolodko declaring that the "state treasury is not a charitable institution".

But Deputy Prime Minister Miroslaw Pietrewicz yesterday said he does not rule out some kind of official support for the yard. But he said this depends on the soundness of the yard's basic condition. That's the catch.

There are those in Poland who will say that the shipyard has always been a thorn in the eye of the current post-communist coalition SLD/PSL government for being the birthplace of Solidarity, and that it needn't expect mercy.

However, another cradle of the new Poland -- the Ursus tractor factory near Warsaw -- has fared better under the same government. Ursus gained fame as a site of courageous protest against the economic policies of the old regime in the mid-1970s. It too is now deeply in debt, but it has been making efforts to improve its own situation.

And it is seen as having political support in a way that Gdansk lacks: Pietrewicz is a leading figure in the Peasant party (PSL). He certainly is not eager to bring the wrath of his own constituency upon his head by ending production of the much-prized Ursus tractors.