Poland waits with bated breath as new premier and union leader meet

Today's talks here between the government and the leaders of the Solidarity union may prove to be the most important event in Poland since the August strike crisis.

This week the atmosphere has become noticeably more uncertain. But no one -- not even the Communist Party chiefs who have just returned from talks with Soviet leaders -- can foretell just what today's meeting may bring.

Stanislaw Kania, the Communist Party's first secretary, and Prime Minister Jozef Pinkowski flew to Moscow Wednesday evening. The Polish party's Politburo had just met in an effort to reassure Poles that their leaders are firmly committed to the reforms written into the strike settlement of Aug. 31.

Until something is known of what transpired in their meeting with Leonid Brezhnev, the question of "what next?" must remain open.

Everything will turn on what kind of accommodation the prime minister can reach with the union leaders. They are still extremely bitter about the way the registration court inserted the ideologically mandatory formula about the Communist Party's "leading role" into their statute.

Their own draft gave allegiance to the Constitution, which enshrines this and the other political realities of postwar Poland. It said the union is based also on the August agreement in which all these points are spelled out.

They were so angered by this abrupt move by the court that it took two days of tense and stormy argument at the union's Gdansk headquarters before the premier's invitation to talk in Warsaw was accepted.

Even then, their acceptance was accompanied by a warning of possible action Nov. 12 if the statute issue is not satisfactorily resolved.

The situation is serious but should not be exaggerated or overdramatized. The visit to Moscow seems not to have been any last-minute, panic decision, either here or in Moscow.

It is common protocol and practice for any new East European party leader to visit the Soviet leadership soon after appointment. Some weeks after Mr. Kania's Sept. 6 election, the party's press officer, Jozef Klasa, told a press conference he would be visiting Moscow soon.

The trip appears to have been brought forward because of the serious new turn in the situation here. It is said to be at the Poles' initiative rather than any "summons" from Moscow.

A prime consideration for the Poles may have been the lengths to which the dogmatic, hard-line East European regimes have gone in attacking the new unions and other reforms envisaged here.

East Germany is the prime mover in these attacks, as it was in 1968, when it did all it could to fan Russian anxieties about the reform movement in Czechoslovakia.

Their test move against the Poles is their unilateral, virtual termination of the eight-year-old agreement on free border passage, allowing Poles and East Germans to visit each others' country at will, without visas.

The Polish news media reported the new regulation -- requiring East German police permits for all such trips -- without comment but made clear that Poland had not been consulted beforehand. Zycie Warszawy's terse headline -- "To East Germany -- by invitation" -- was eloquent indication of how coldly this ally's move is regarded.

Such actions are tantamount to a closing of the frontiers to all but official traffic. They underlin not only the obvious fears in East Berlin and Praque of contagion from Polish reforms but also this country's geographical position. Unlike East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, Poland has no border with Western Europe.

The Soviet Union also has sounded sharp doubts and disapproval about the unions, but recently they have been noticeably more circumspect.

The situation here easily evokes memories of what happened in Czechoslovakia in 1968. But the analogy should not be carried too far. The issue of Poland today is much more profound, imposing constraints on all concerned. Each party to it is under contradictory pressures.

The Russians cannot conceive of a communist-run state without the acknowledged supremacy of the party at all points. Yet failure to abide by their expressed intention not to interfere in Poland's problems would be to bring the house down about everyone's ears.

The Polish leaders are caught between similar pressures: they know what a communist system normally calls for, but because of the massive social movement from below, they have accepted changes because there really is no alternative. Union leader Lech Walesa has his problems, too. He is for moderation, but this week he only just managed to win out over more radical elements. Almost everything depends on whether he and the government can find a formula that will enable him to maintain control.

Before leaving for Moscow, Mr. Kania repeated his Oct. 15 pledge that the change of course in Poland is "irreversible" and that the working class is its guarantee. He also pledged to maintain Poland's "socialist [communist] system."

That, one may assume, is what he was telling the Soviet leaders. He was likely also to be asserting that what is being done here will strengthen communism, not weaken it.

Provided he has been able to remove any Kremlin doubts about his party's ability to cope with the situation, any immediate crisis will have been averted.

The Russians might learn to live with Poland's peculiar unions just as they have come to accept the fact of private farming and the regime's recognition that the Roman Catholic Church has a unique place in Poland.

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