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A trying week for Kremlin as cracks appear in empire

By Joseph C. Harsch / November 14, 1980

This past week must have been one of the most painful ever for the leaders of the Soviet Union. Not since World War II have so many of their imperial projects languished and so many trends in world affairs been so adverse for them.

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Worst of all has been their dilemna over Poland. Which for the men in the Kremlin is worse: to allow effective power in Poland to slip from the grasp of the Polish Communist Party, itself a subsidiary of the Kremlin, or to reestablish Moscow's military control by one hard, brutal use of force?

To allow the workers of Poland to form their own truly independent trade union and to form an open alliance with the Roman Catholic Church means that the most populous and most important of the nominally communist Eastern European clients of Moscow has, in fact, repudiated Moscow's political systems, the alliance with Moscow, and Moscow itself.

Moscow's very system of military alliances is called the Warsaw Pact. But of what value to Moscow is the Warsaw Pact if the people of Warsaw itself have turned their hearts and hands away from Moscow and gone their own independent way?

Yet what was the alternative? Had the Kremlin decided that the united trade unions of Poland must be resubordinated to the control of the Communist Party, Moscow would have had to use force to impose that decision. The Soviet high command probably would first have ordered the Polish Army to put down the general strike that would have been triggered by the hard stand.

But would Polish soldiers fire on Polish workers? And if the Polish soldiers defied Soviet orders would Moscow then have ordered Soviet troops to take military action against the Polish Army? Probably not, because Poland is so nationalistic.

It could have been done. But at what price? The end of that course of action would be a Poland reduced to the condition of East Germany -- a Soviet military occupation. And that would have been not only a new military and economic burden on Moscow, but also a decisive admission of the bankruptcy of the Soviet imperial system.

At this writing the Kremlin seems to have elected to let the Polish workers go their own way for the time being, no doubt hoping to be able to bring them back under control at some later day by gradual methods? The plain fact is that as of Monday last, when the Polish high court granted the workers' demand for a charter untied from the Communist Party, real political power in Poland had flowed into the hands of the unions and the Catholic Church.

The most influential persons in Poland on Monday last were no longer the leaders of the Communist Party but Lech Walesa, who built the new united Polish union called Solidarity, and Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, Roman Catholic primate of Poland and close friend of Pope John Paul II in Rome. Union leader and cardinal are in friendly consultation and cooperation. The cardinal has just returned from consulting with the Pope.

Can Poland any longer be counted on by the Kremlin as an ally and asset? What is happening to the structure of the Soviet empire?