GREAT DECISIONS '82; Poland and the USSR: troubles in the workers' paradise

''Not enough room for two'' ran a headline in the Polish weekly Polityka.

It was almost a question. But it proved to be intuitive, for the edition was hardly off the presses before martial law was declared last Dec. 13.

Indeed, there was not room enough for both the ruling Communist Party and an independent trade union that symbolized Poland's hopes for a better life and more freedom.

In the end it was the party that had the power.

The year that began with Solidarity ended in a ''state of war,'' under curfew , with borders closed, political and social life suspended, and military courts dealing with any breaches of the new rules of life.

The biggest and most hopeful reform movement in 39 years of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was halted. For all the assurances that the reform process would continue, no one could say when the crisis might be over, or what reforms might be salvaged.

Three times over those 39 years of Soviet overlordship Polish hopes have soared - and been dashed. The 1956 ''October'' lasted only two years.

A repeat performance - on the questionable foundations of the ''affluent'' early Gierek years - quickly broke down when the world energy crisis struck and shattered the deceptive affluence. But the headlong borrowing in the West - much of it for grandiose projects that seldom produced anything that could sell in competitive, open markets - went on.

Then in 1980 the economic exhaustion and massive social unrest presented the most formidable challenge a communist regime has yet faced.

The party tried to carry on by simply changing leaders. But this time the Poles were much less in a mood to be trifled with. They found their own instinctive, natural leader in Lech Walesa.

Grouped behind him, the shipbuilders and port workers along the Baltic coast left the authorities no option but to bow to strike settlements conceding, first and foremost, the new, uniquely independent unions and pledging reform in every aspect of Polish life.

In due course, Solidarity got its own mass-distribution newspaper, censorshop was reduced significantly, an increasingly open press flourished, the state radio broadcast Sunday morning mass, and students secured a strong voice in university life.

There were big hikes in wages and allowances, and a five-day workweek the government knew (but scarcely dared say) the country and its tottering economy could not afford.

Solidarity itself attracted at least three-quarters of a work force of some 12 million. Moreover, it included approximately 1 in 3 of the party's own 3.2 million members.

But the fledgling labor organization was quite unversed in democracy. Its membership was diverse, spanning three generations of Poles. The militants among them had little time for patience or traditional forms of bargaining and trade unionism.

It was not surprising that the radicals came more and more to set the pace; demands, pitched ever higher, became more political - and led to the union's subsequent downfall.

As early as late November 1980, Walesa told this writer: ''We must consolidate what we have gained and work from there, not present fresh, extravagant demands the authorities can't meet, or we could lose everything.''

He wanted a strong, fighting union, but ''I am not interested in politics,'' he said.

When the present acrimony - quite one-sided because the government accuses Solidarity but neither Walesa nor any other union leader is free to reply - is over, calmer consideration can establish to what extent the union's politicalization was responsible for the way things went wrong.

Often the government's own intransigence was to blame. An early example was the ugly Bydgoszcz episode last March, in which policemen beat up union officials staging a sit-in. Only after a major strike threat arose was the government persuaded to heed the general public outcry over police brutality against unionists.

Later, the authorities admitted police guilt - but they never identified the culprits. ''Unless we drive them, the authorities will do nothing,'' a well-known Warsaw radical told this writer.

Such comments often seemed justified. But in this ''dialogue of mutual distrust,'' the same man could say, ''We really have gained nothing,'' as though the very existence of Solidarity and the new tolerance for the news media, youth , and the Roman Catholic Church did not exist.

By the time the union held its first national convention in Gdansk in the fall, Poland had withstood a half dozen confrontations. Had it not been for Mr. Walesa's stubborn insistence on compromise, any one of those confrontations could have brought collapse and chaos. For geopolitical reasons Solidarity seemed determined to ignore, the Soviet Union would have had to intervene.

''The trouble with Solidarity,'' a sympathetic Hungarian journalist covering the convention commented, ''is they don't stop to look at the map.''

In 1956 Hungary had experimented with liberalization. Like Solidarity, it had tried to take the process too far, too fast. Solidarity militants talked much of emulating the subsequent Hungarian recovery and economic reform. But they refused to acknowledge that the Soviet crackdown in Hungary had any relevance for themselves.

Frequently, only Walesa seemed to consider seriously the likely impact on the regime's options or on Kremlin thinking of what Poland was doing, or the fact that all this was tantamount to breathing down the government's back all the time.

''Some of you want to destroy the government and parliament and take their place, to become more totalitarian than they are,'' he said angrily at Gdansk.

''Don't underestimate the party,'' he warned. ''it is still strong.'' Its grass roots might be demoralized, he said, but the powerful apparatus remained.

He was often highhanded, since, unlike most Poles, he is impatient of too many words. He sensed the dangers of extremism. But his weakening position was apparent in the election for union chairman: Faced by three hard-line rivals, he got only slightly more than 55 percent of the vote.

After the Gdansk convention, in fact, events assumed all the mounting inevitability of a classic Greek tragedy. The one ''last chance'' - when everyone at least paid lip service to a national effort uniting party, church, and union - foundered after a single abortive meeting brought together General Jaruzelski, Walesa, and Archbishop Jozef Glemp.

By then Solidarity was demanding overall ''power sharing,'' which no Communist Party in East Europe could contemplate and survive Soviet displeasure.

It was not surprising the government almost always encountered deep skepticism. Technically, the crisis was not its handiwork. But it was the legacy of its own predecessors, many of whom remained in high places. Most Poles saw the new regime still representing a ''system'' that had failed.

In this Catch-22 situation, another Walesa appeal to stop wildcat strikes went unheeded. The government's desperation over the economy prompted it to propose limiting the hard-won right to strike. That suggestion, which another nation might accept as necessary in such a dangerous situation, merely raised the political temperature in Poland.

It seems certain that - as Vice-Premier Mieczyslaw Rakowski bluntly insists - it was the union's demand for a national referendum on future government and the call for a general strike in mid-December that finally triggered what Mr. Brezhnev has called General Jaruzelski's ''timely'' decision.

A still unrepentant party ''liberal'' here told me: ''A strike would have meant 100,000 people on the (Victory) Square. It would have needed only one stone thrown. One policeman roughed up, one panic shot fired.

''A strike Dec. 17 in that appalling atmosphere could only have ended in bloodshed. And then, just as certainly, the one end result we've always had at the back of our minds (Soviet intervention), however many reasons we had before for feeling sure it wouldn't come to that.''

Throughout 1981 there had been many nail-biting meetings with the Soviets. But the latter seemed increasingly anxious to leave the Poles to fend for themselves. By the time Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko visited in July, it seemed that Soviet intervention would arise only as a final resort.

The resulting communique said nothing of the domestic situation. It focused solely on Poland's loyalty to the Warsaw Pact and the right of all pact members to ''defend socialism'' against a threat to it in any one of them.

After all, the Russians had long accepted the tolerance of private farming and the church's unique place in Poland's Communist environment.

Now, however stridently they cried ''counterrevolution'' - or rattled swords - the Soviets seemed ready to accept everything, Solidarity included, so long as the Polish leaders:

1. Let nothing impair Poland's pivotal strategic position in Soviet security interests vis-a-vis the West.

2. Showed no tolerance for trends questioning the understandings between East and West and the general balance of forces between them worked out as World War II ended.

The Russians, in short, were taking a long-term view of the prospects of a return to stability. Only if Poland were actually to cross the Rubicon into socioeconomic chaos and civil conflict would intervention be adopted as the unavoidable option.

This view was supported by George Kennan - one of the most perceptive contemporary readers of the Russian mind - in a New York Times article that was also published in the International Herald Tribune early in January, i.e., well after martial law.

''One may assume,'' he wrote, ''that the only development that would drive the Russians to so drastic a step would be further degeneration of the Polish situation to a point where they saw their entire military and political hegemony in Eastern and Central Europe, including East Germany, being undermined. . . .''

If the West wanted to avert the dangers of ''an over-anxious Soviet interest in Poland,'' Kennan added, ''we must be willing to address ourselves to the Kremlin's basic strategic stake in the eastern and central region.''

That, of course, is what the Polish leaders also have to do. They are bitter about the Reagan administration's sanctions. But they react even more strongly to any Western questioning of the Yalta (February 1945) and Potsdam (July 1945) agreements between the wartime allies.

Deputy Foreign Minister Jozef Wiejacz, in an interview accusing the US and some of its allies of denying postwar ''realities,'' recalled a conversation between Churchill and Stalin.

In it, Churchill described the Polish question (meaning free elections) as ''a matter of honor'' for the British. The Soviet dictator replied that to the Russians it was a matter of security as well. . . . ''The most important strategic problems of the Soviet state involve Poland,'' he said.

Poland has no choice but to live with that as realistically and sensibly as it can. It was political naivete to think otherwise or to believe, as so many of Solidarity's radicals did, that in that context the Soviets would both tolerate the union and swallow any kind of pluralism diminishing the dominant role of Poland's Communists.

Difficult as it may seem, there probably still is time for compromise among Poles. But only an initiative by the government can get the ''social accord'' urged by the Catholic hierarchy last month started.

Under the present ''war'' conditions, only the authorities can act. Lech Walesa, the other essential party, can do nothing as long as he remains in detention. Why not set him free to state publicly where he and a restructured Solidarity might stand?

General Jaruzelski's call for national cooperation based, among other things, on accommodation with the Catholic Church and independent, self-governing, but nonpolitical unions was endorsed by the party Central Committee.

But that committee's latest meeting also showed that the doctrinaire antireform faction is still very strong. Although it apparently is checked for the time being, it stands ready to capitalize on the political consequences of a final social breakdown.

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