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How Far Can East European Unrest Go Before Soviets Revert to Military Force?

May 08, 1988|Hugh De Santis | Hugh De Santis is adjunct professor of government at Georgetown University.

WASHINGTON — The recent rash of strikes in Poland--including the walkout of thousands of shipyard workers in Gdansk--gives pause for sober reflection. The mounting labor unrest is a jarring reminder that Poland remains politically volatile.

Moreover, similar disturbances could erupt elsewhere in Eastern Europe, which is experimenting with glasnost- induced social and economic change. Although Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev may be willing to put up with Polish unrest for now, the prospect of regional instability raises the specter of Soviet military intervention--an option one should not assume Moscow has abandoned.

The wave of strikes that have swept Poland since April 25 is chillingly reminiscent of the popular discontent that gave rise to the Solidarity union in 1980. As was the case then, the manifest reason for the work stoppages is economic. Government price increases in February and April, intended to invigorate the ailing Polish economy, have been offset by huge subsidies to state industry and consumers. The result is an inflation rate of 45% and higher pay demands by restless workers.

Another similarity between the current situation and 1980 is the government's acquiescence in the workers' demands. Transport workers in Bydgoszcz, whose walkout triggered the current outbreak of strikes, reportedly received a 60% pay hike; about 1,500 steelworkers at the plant in Stalow Wola ended their stoppage in return for a 50% increase.

Until the Gdansk shipyard walkout, the workers' demands had been mainly economic; political issues such as trade-union pluralism and the reinstatement of workers banned from the banned Solidarity union were not pressed, for example, by the steelworkers at Stalow Wola. Nonetheless, grass-roots activism is increasing, as reflected in the May Day demonstrations, mirroring the conditions in 1980-81, and Solidarity committees have begun to reorganize. Moreover, in addition to higher wages, the Gdansk shipyard workers have demanded the legalization of Solidarity, the reinstatement of workers dismissed during martial law and the release of all political prisoners.

Unable to convince the public that the strikers' demands were economically intolerable, but intent on containing the unrest, the military government of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski finally dispatched police to break up the steel strike at Nowa Huta. In addition, the government arrested Solidarity leaders Bogdan Lis and Zbigniew Bujak. A siege atmosphere developed at the Gdansk shipyard, however, and conditions remain explosive.

Poland's social turmoil could spill over to other countries in the region. Every East European state is testing to some degree Gorbachev's pronouncement at the 1986 Communist Party Congress that unity does not mean uniformity.

Gorbachev's continuing program of liberalization--witness his pledge at the end of April to permit open religious worship in the Soviet Union--provides solace and support for reform-minded critics in Eastern Europe. This is especially true in countries such as Hungary, which has been on the cutting edge of political and economic change in the region, but also conservative bloc members such as East Germany, where advocates of reform increasingly cite Gorbachev's views to local authorities.

Although Gorbachev has unleashed reformist impulses in Eastern Europe, he is not in complete control of the political form they take. Is he prepared to accept independent trade unions in Poland? To make matters worse, unrest in Poland could coincide with developments elsewhere. How would Moscow react if Hungary simultaneously decided to institutionalize minority criticism of official policy? What if Hungary announced its withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, as it did in 1956?

Such developments would place Gorbachev's rhetoric of reform and the Soviet historic objectives of maintaining control over its Eastern European fiefdom in inescapable conflict. Wishful thinking aside, two factors argue in favor of Gorbachev's toleration of incipient political pluralism in Eastern Europe. One is his political credibility. Gorbachev has staked his personal prestige at home and abroad on restructuring an ineffectual socioeconomic system. Moreover, his rhetoric suggests that socialism has become a flexible, indeed malleable, philosophy. During his visit to Yugoslavia last March, he came tantalizingly close to renouncing the Brezhnev Doctrine sanctioning Soviet intervention in the region to maintain socialist purity.

A second factor is the deteriorating state of the Soviet economy. Badly in need of help from the West to stave off fatal economic decline, Gorbachev may feel constrained to accept certain political and economic measures once considered heretical to secure the infusion of Western credits and technology to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

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