The thorn in the bear's paw

POLAND has again exploded on the international arena. A series of workers' strikes highlighted the country's worsening economic conditions and Warsaw's intolerable political stranglehold. Now, with the strikes ended, the current struggle is political, with opposition leaders determined to win official recognition of the Solidarity trade union. The wave of labor unrest also reignited a smoldering fire in Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. Popular demands for free trade unions highlight the gnawing contradiction between aspirations for social self-determination and the realities of Communist Party control. Recurrent protests by Polish workers in the face of falling living standards and mounting economic austerity also threaten to dent the image and the substance of Mikhail Gorbachev's reformist programs.

The Polish strikers may eventually be ``pacified'' through a mixture of some form of modified recognition for Solidarity, threats, promises, and partial wage concessions. But even more serious conflict could erupt in the future unless the root causes of worker discontent are effectively tackled.

The granting of wage demands, which the government cannot ultimately afford and which undermine its avowed pursuit of ``financial discipline,'' will simply fuel inflation, already running at over 60 percent, and complicate plans for economic recovery. Conversely, the regime may arm itself with ``emergency powers'' to outlaw strikes, but it cannot implement economic reform by compulsion, particularly not a reform program which needs to be based on individual initiative, decentralization, and other market-oriented elements.

Without a major political opening through some semblance of power-sharing with representatives of independent social groups including free trade unions, Poland will be unable to dismount the roller coaster of crisis and conflict.

For several years now, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski has been the Kremlin's darling, at the forefront of the East bloc's ``reform movement.'' Mr. Gorbachev himself has consistently praised General Jaruzelski for introducing martial law and squashing Solidarity.

During a recent visit to Poland Gorbachev underscored his faith in the General and informed Poles they should consider themselves fortunate to have such an able leader. Polish workers appear not to be impressed by such exhortations.

If serious turmoil again engulfs Poland, Gorbachev may wish to distance himself from Jaruzelski, not because he disapproves of his methods and objectives, but simply because he has lost faith in Warsaw's ability to subdue social protest.

Unrest in Poland serves to expose and undermine the ulterior aims of perestroika. Soviet bloc ``reforms'' are not intended to herald the dawn of democracy and national sovereignty. They are principally means to an end, designed to modernize antiquated and unproductive economies by streamlining management, gaining public confidence, spurring motivation and output, and eliciting Western material support, without significantly loosening party control over the disenfranchised producers.

Workers' strikes are a rebellion against parasitical bureaucrats; they serve notice that workers refuse to bear the burden of austerity and pauperization caused by decades of official mismanagement.

Poland is therefore proving to be a costly embarrassment to Gorbachev for two reasons. First, national unrest anywhere in the bloc unearths the depth of popular resentment against communist rule and Russian domination. Such palpable discontent may no longer be controllable either through neo-Stalinist terror or unaffordable consumerism. Second, the Polish imbroglio demonstrates that immense dangers lurk ahead for each East bloc state whether they delay or accelerate their reformist policies - Poland is simply the most unstable link in the chain.

Years of immobility and stagnation have undermined the ``social contract'' in post-Stalin party-states under which the population eschews political activity in exchange for an assured standard of living.

Polish workers stand at the forefront of escalating antagonisms throughout the Warsaw Pact between a privileged communist caste and the subjugated proletariat. Their revolt against falling living standards and the political status quo could merely prove to be a harbinger of more serious revolt throughout the region as the incompatibility between Leninism and progress deepens and widens.

Janusz Bugajski is a research associate specializing in East European affairs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

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