MOSCOW — Negotiations between Poland's Communist leaders and Solidarity over the new coalition government in Warsaw were at an impasse last August.
The issue--how much power the Communists would have--was central to formation of the Solidarity-led coalition and its prospects for success. Resolution of the dispute was crucial, all agreed, but after more than four decades in power, the Communists were finding it difficult to accept Solidarity's control of the government.
Then, at the peak of the crisis, on Tuesday, Aug. 22, a telephone call came from Moscow, from Communist Party headquarters here, from Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the Soviet president and the party's general secretary. For 40 minutes, Gorbachev talked with Mieczyslaw Rakowski, the first secretary of the ruling Polish United Workers' Party, and counseled him on the need for compromise.
The Polish Communists must understand, Gorbachev told Rakowski bluntly, that the time had come to yield power. The party had lost the confidence of the people--as the parliamentary elections in June had shown--and it would have to work to regain it, he said. For the salvation of the nation, Polish Communists should participate in the new coalition government, Gorbachev said, and they would have the understanding and support of their Soviet comrades.
The impasse was broken. That afternoon, the party dropped its demands for greater powers in the coalition and declared its readiness for "partner-like cooperation" with Solidarity.
Four days later, Vladimir A. Kryuchkov, the head of the KGB, arrived in Warsaw to confer with Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the Solidarity nominee for prime minister, and to give the new coalition government Moscow's blessing.
Gorbachev's call, as recounted recently by one of his foreign policy advisers, had altered not only the course of Polish politics but of subsequent events throughout Eastern Europe.
For he has proved to be very much a hands-on crisis manager: He has himself intervened at crucial moments not only in Warsaw but also in Berlin.
He maintains daily contact by telephone and telex with Soviet diplomats, party envoys and military commanders throughout the region, according to informed Soviet sources. And he has interceded personally with top Western leaders to ensure that developments proceed smoothly.
The Soviet Union, caught up in its own political and economic reforms, was suddenly encouraging other socialist countries to democratize, to decentralize their planned, state-managed economies and to pursue with greater vigor the long-delayed de-Stalinization of their societies.
"The biggest and most essential reforms began in the Soviet Union," Foreign Minister Eduard A. Shevardnadze reminded journalists last month.
However pressing the problems may have been in Warsaw or other East European capitals, no one had forgotten that, in August, 1968, Moscow sent Warsaw Pact forces into Czechoslovakia to end the Prague Spring, that country's experiment in liberalization; that Moscow had pushed Poland into declaring martial law in 1981 to deal with Solidarity, and that it had used Soviet troops to crush earlier anti-Communist uprisings in Hungary, East Germany and Poland.
But Gorbachev, setting out the Soviet Union's new foreign policy at the United Nations last December, had declared: "The principle of freedom of choice is mandatory. Refusal to recognize this principle will have serious consequences for world peace.
The crucial test of Moscow's "new political thinking" came, as everyone knew it would, in Eastern Europe, which the Soviet Union had turned into a strategic and ideological buffer after World War II through an array of "people's democracies" intended to protect both the motherland and Communism from the capitalist West.
"We knew some time ago that things could not last there, not the way that they were, not with all those years of problems piled up," Leonid N. Dobrokhotov, a foreign policy specialist at the Communist Party's Central Committee headquarters, said in an interview. "But we did not expect the changes to come so quickly and so dramatically."
And through all this, the Soviet Union, surprising itself as much as any Western observer, has supported and even helped promote the transformation.
The old leaderships in Berlin, Prague and Sofia were warned directly by their comrades in Moscow that the time had come for a change, that reforms could be delayed no longer and that they could expect no Soviet support in clinging to power.
When the Czechoslovak party newspaper Rude Pravo bannered Moscow's frank advice to the leadership there to "reassess" the way it had come to power in 1968, the crowds in Prague's Wenceslas Square swelled to unprecedented size--and the Czechoslovak party's will to govern was probably lost.
And the unexpected emergence last month of a reformist "Gorbachev generation" to replace the Bulgarian Communist Party's aging leadership had been actively, though quietly, encouraged by senior Soviet leaders, including Shevardnadze.