The Polish government's decision to give amnesty to some 650 political prisoners on the 40th anniversary of the Polish People's Republic is both extraordinary and unexpected. It is extraordinary because it will virtually empty the prisons of political prisoners, and unexpected because the Polish security services, in the renewal of hard-line tactics after the 1983 amnesty, have been relentlessly detaining and jailing active dissidents.
Among those scheduled for release are the four leading members of the dissolved dissident Committee for Social Self-Defense (known as KOR in Polish), on trial for plotting to overthrow the government. So are the seven members of the Solidarity trade union's National Commission who were awaiting trial. Not benefiting from the amnesty are those convicted or arrested on charges of espionage, sabotage, or treason, like Bogdan Lis, the underground Solidarity leader from Gdansk who evaded capture for 21/2 years after martial law.
Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Polish leader, has taken this step for both domestic and international reasons. Internally, he cannot bring about national reconciliation on the basis of police brutality and the security services' terror tactics. Having established a position of political strength, he can afford to show magnanimity, not to say self-interest, in striving toward national reconciliation. A less aggrieved public opinion could promote public welfare.
General Jaruzelski also needs the West's forbearance. Despite all the talk of closer integration of the Eastern European and Soviet economies, Eastern Europe - Poland included - needs trade with the West. Poland has barely turned its economy around from its 1979-83 slide. It has rescheduled its debts to Western commercial banks and seeks to do the same with its debts to Western governments. It wants access to Western credits and membership in the International Monetary Fund. Jaruzelski wants Western sanctions removed.
What are the policy interests of the United States at this juncture?
In acknowledging Poland's strategic significance to the Soviet Union, we should remind ourselves of the importance of the Polish people's Western and Roman Catholic orientation. During the 1970s we were able to form many constructive relationships with Poland in trade, agriculture, educational, scientific, and cultural exchanges, as well as political contacts. These have been much eroded by Jaruzelski's martial law and Washington's retaliatory sanctions. It is time to rebuild the American-Polish connection.
President Reagan's three conditions for the lifting of sanctions have been more or less met. Martial law was abrogated, and almost all political prisoners have been released. Resumption of the dialogue among the government, Solidarity, and the Roman Catholic Church is not possible because Solidarity was banned nearly three years ago. But the state-church talks go on as before. The new trade unions showed surprising clout last winter in forcing, first, postponement of the government's intended price increases and, then, modification of the lowest price-rise formula.
In addition, recent elections to local and regional offices based on a new electoral law (two candidates for every seat, nominations from groups other than the party) introduced novelties not yet adopted elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Economic reform is still the goal of the Jaruzelski regime even, if the means and the will to accomplish it sometimes seem in short supply. In industry, the principles of workers' self-management are being cautiously and gradually applied. All this is not the same as a government dialogue with Solidarity, but it represents a couple of major steps forward from the pre-Solidarity situation in 1980.
If we wish to restore something of our former mutually beneficial ties with Poland, if we want to avoid consigning the Poles (government and people) even more into the arms of the Soviets, if we hope ever to be repaid for the government-guaranteed credits we provided Poland in the 1970s, we should move promptly to lift or reduce or the economic sanctions.
Some opposition within the ethnic Polish community in the United States and from the AFL-CIO is to be expected for ideological reasons, but our own broad interests as well as the welfare of the Polish people demand the reknitting of Polish ties to the West. Political, economic, and humanitarian considerations dictate a change now in US policy.