Four years after Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's "coup" of Dec. 13, 1981, Poland has largely faded from the headlines.
Periodically, as when Father Jerzy Popieluszko was murdered in 1984, or when a purge now under way has seen the removal of 70 university professors, the outcry reaches the level of international comment. But the tanks are off the streets. Martial law has been ended. Most political prisoners have been released. The hounds of the Western press have few trails to pursue, and Poland's ills have largely been overtaken by more acute crises elsewhere.
The Polish crisis, however, is far from resolved. Jaruzelski, having crushed Solidarity with surprising ease, is finding his victory more apparent than real.
Four years after the Hungarian revolution of 1956, Janos Kadar was politically secure and preparing to launch a bold program of economic reforms. Four years after the Prague Spring, Gustav Husak held a battered Czechoslovakia safely under lock and key. Four years after Solidarity, Jaruzelski is nowhere.
In Poland's case, economic reform, the usual palliative for all politically immobile communist regimes, has proved illusory. The threat of financial and industrial collapse was stemmed but not removed. An open declaration of bankruptcy was avoided. But the inexorable pressure of years of non-investment, reduced supplies and technological starvation is building up. The avalanche may yet happen.
Meanwhile, Jaruzelski is dashing around the world in the hope of raising a rescue. But his chances of success are slim. French President Francois Mitterrand's back door, which the general was shown last week, is symptomatic. In all the countries that lent money to Poland lavishly in the 197Os, Jaruzelski is an unwelcome visitor.
In the political sphere the general has few people to rely on and no tools to work with. The Polish Communist Party, whose back was broken by the democratic challenge of Solidarity, is still convalescing, and its remaining members suffer from the ideological equivalent of a nervous breakdown. The "normal" civilian dictatorship of the party has not been properly revived. The machine is still working, but only through sheer inertia and the temporary exhaustion of its opponents.
The general's political experiments have fallen flat. The new labor unions, which he ordered his minions to organize, have naturally turned out to contain a mass of ex-Solidarity supporters, and are proving hardly less critical. The new PRON organization (Patriotic Movement of National Salvation) that replaced the old Front of National Unity as a device for mobilizing "spontaneous" non-party support (orchestrated by the party) is a dead duck--stuffed with the party's pork-barrel clients, pensioners and opportunists.
Most ominously, the vast security services are feeling insecure. For them the Popieluszko trial was an unforgivable humiliation. In the communist world the party is supposed to wash its linen in secret, and the prosecution of four officers who happened to have murdered a priest in the pursuit of their everyday duties was bound to be seen as a betrayal. Jaruzelski may not get their loyalty the next time he needs it.
Of course, the explanation of the Popieluszko trial lies in the fact that the general had long offended the party dogmatists and was determined to head off their attempts to cause trouble. The priest's murder was itself a sign of unrest among hard-line elements. They were sickened by the general's failure to eliminate the regime's opponents and by his continuing toleration of the Roman Catholic Church.
In the West, where Jaruzelski is often mistakenly portrayed as a monster, as a "Polish Pinochet," it is hard to believe that by the prevailing standards of his orthodox comrades he lacks rigor and ideological commitment. In Moscow's eyes his promising start has been spoiled by indecisions. Having been deported to arctic Russia in 1940, together with millions of other Poles, Jaruzelski's feelings about the Soviet Union are bound to be very ambiguous.
Solidarity cannot rise again--at least not in its old form. But its nonviolent ideals make it an easy victim for the police state. The danger is that in the next round of the drama a frustrated opposition might abandon the path of nonviolence.
All of which poses a major problem for the Kremlin. In the past, detente has given Moscow the opening to deal with its dissidents at home. Now that East-West relations are improving, Warsaw can expect the reins to be shortened. If Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev runs true to form, he will retire Jaruzelski in disgrace, blame him for the chaos and try to restore socialist discipline. If he does nothing, the crunch is coming anyhow. But Poland is a group of dissidents 35 million strong, and is not to be trifled with. It is the key to Eastern Europe. The risks are fearsome. If Gorbachev is as enlightened as one prays, he will cut his losses in Poland, let the general retire with honor, grant the Poles what Solidarity demanded and save the world another headline.