Is it possible that the latest round of strikes in Poland has not been in vain? Is it possible that the beleaguered government of Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski is ready to accept a measure of political pluralism at long last?
One answer, alas, is that the Polish situation is as confusing as ever. But another answer is that we may be witnessing a hopeful moment. From the shambles that is Poland there is now a slim chance for recovery.
At one point last weekend Jaruzelski called for a "courageous turnaround" in his government's policies toward the Polish opposition. He told the Communist Party's Central Committee that the party must have "the courage to break with old stereotypes and barriers, the courage to use new and unconventional means and, first of all, effective ones."
By the end of the weekend, however, Jaruzelski appeared to rule out the legalization of Solidarity, the banned labor union. He still favored the creation of a new "coalition of pro-reform forces."
Although it is not clear, then, what Jaruzelski had in mind, spokesmen for Solidarity at first welcomed his initiative. Lech Walesa, the union's leader, called it "a step in the right direction." Adam Michnik, a prominent adviser to the union, added that the authorities might be getting ready "to seek a resolution of a comprehensive character."
Hearing Jaruzelski's subsequent comment on Solidarity, however, Michnik said later that if the regime snubbed Walesa, "We are facing another significantly more dangerous phase of social conflict in Poland." (On Tuesday Michnik announced that Walesa would confer in Warsaw with Interior Minister Czeslaw Kiszczak in a government effort to end the labor turmoil.)
Michnik is right. Without Walesa, Poland faces continued decay and conflict. With Walesa, there is hope for renewal and a measure of stability. It is a simple equation: Walesa personifies Solidarity; Solidarity, an independent labor union, embodies the dream of millions of Poles.
Much as Jaruzelski feels contempt for Walesa, he may yet decide to deal with him. In some ways Poland today is a different country from what it was when Jaruzelski's martial-law regime outlawed Solidarity on Dec. 13, 1981. At that time the government was weak, isolated and on the defensive. Solidarity spoke on behalf of a united country fed up with its incompetent and deceitful rulers. There was no middle ground for compromise.
Each side has since demonstrated its vulnerabilities.
The government is still isolated and unpopular, but it has managed to stay in power and has also sapped the opposition's strength. Because the country's economic problems remain as serious as ever, and because there is still a tremendous shortage of both food and other consumer goods, many Poles spend their time looking for basic necessities. Their sympathies remain with the strikers and with the political activists, and they could be moved to take to the streets once again. But for the time being they long for a period of tranquillity, fewer queues and more food.
Just as the government still cannot count on active popular support, Solidarity can no longer mobilize the whole Polish working class. The government is unable to make people work; Solidarity is unable to bring down the government.
This is why Jaruzelski not only needs Walesa's credibility with the Polish people but also may be willing to make a few concessions to get it. Two crucial considerations might now prompt the general to do what he has never wanted to do. One is the changing balance of power between his government and Solidarity. The other is the already changed signals emanating from the Soviet Union.
In 1980 Jaruzelski was under immense Soviet pressure to suppress Solidarity. In 1988 Mikhail S. Gorbachev's Soviet Union, so deeply emerged in getting its own reforms off the ground, seems quite willing to tolerate a good deal of experimentation in Poland in exchange for a period of peace and stability.
For now, Jaruzelski can still rule Poland without those whom he contemptuously refers to as the "anarchists" in and around Solidarity. But, to make the country function normally, the present stalemate cannot go on forever. Indeed, if Jaruzelski underestimates his people's determination and fails to give Solidarity a meaningful role in Poland's political life, today's standoff could turn into tomorrow's rout.