WARSAW — ON Warsaw's sidewalks, nouveau riche dandies brandishing hand-held telephones brush past beggars in ragged clothes. Poles remember only too well that, just five years ago under communism, they suffered shortages more or less equally.
Change has come swiftly to this Central European nation, but the pace of reform has divided it. Yesterday, the crisis reached a pitch after President Lech Walesa - accused of being power hungry -
asked parliament to dissolve itself, charging the dominant left of moving slowly on reform.
But while Polish democracy hangs in the balance during this constitutional crisis, almost all sides agree on one thing: that Poland, slightly smaller than New Mexico, must join NATO's military alliance and other Western organizations to ensure its independence.
``NATO membership is very important for Poland,'' says Jerzy Jakubczyc, a businessman. ``Poland is a small country and it needs help to maintain its full independence. Without it, we can't achieve much.''
Political leaders also want Poland to join NATO.
``The principal aim of Poland's security policy and defense strategy should lie with NATO membership,'' says Jerzy Szmajdzinski, secretary-general of the Democratic Left Alliance, the largest party in the governing coalition. Only Prime Minister Waldemar Pawlak's Peasant Party, the junior coalition member, has expressed reservations about joining.
The general pro-NATO feeling reflects Poles' keen awareness of Poland's tragic history, which, over the centuries, has destroyed hopeful independence in internal division and outside intervention.
From the mid-18th century through 1914, Poland was bullied and then gobbled up by its neighbors of the day: Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Frequent rebellions were always snuffed out.
After World War I, Poland regained independence until totalitarian Germany and the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1939 - with the West looking on. Poland stayed in Moscow's sphere until Communism collapsed in Europe in 1989.
Poland's foreign policymakers today want above all to ensure that Poland never falls victim to outside powers again. Many say the country's chances, given Russia's current weakness, haven't been so good for generations.
Establishing a sound market and democracy would seem to offer the best defense against foreign meddling, Polish experts say. But completing the reform effort requires Western help.
``In the beginning we made good progress. After five years of climbing we can see the peak, but the people are now tired,'' says Piotr Nowina-Konopka, the foreign policy spokesman for the Freedom Union, Poland's main opposition party.
``At the last stage you can't slow down, you must speed up.... NATO, along with the European Union, should give us a hand up the icy slope,'' he continues. ``There's a limited window of opportunity, and we're losing time. We may not want to withdraw, but history may withdraw us involuntarily.''
The history that Poles are concerned most with is that of Russian imperialism.
``The democratic tradition is still weak [in Russia],'' says Jerzy Bahr, the head of the Polish Foreign Ministry's department in charge of Russian relations. ``In our psychological relations, most important is that they feel we [Poles] are not grateful enough to them.''
Lingering anti-Russian sentiment in parts of Polish society, especially among intellectuals, worsens tension. This animosity comes from a ``reflexive impulse of claustrophobia,'' Mr. Bahr says.
The last year has been tense for Russian-Polish relations. A low point was a vitriolic dispute connected to the 50th anniversary of the unsuccessful Warsaw uprising against Nazi occupation in 1944.
Polish officials maintain that Soviet Armies near Warsaw held back from intervening in the belief that the Nazi slaughter of Polish resistance would let Moscow more easily impose communism on Poland after the war. Russian diplomats angrily retorted that Warsaw was trying to rewrite history.
And last October, Polish police allegedly beat up a group of Russian tourists, after which Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin postponed a November visit to Warsaw. That visit is now expected to take place in the coming weeks.
Consumed by internal troubles, including Chechnya, Russia now does not pose much of a threat to Poland. But Mr. Nowina-Konopka says this might not last for ever. ``Russia may become an imperial threat again,'' he cautions.
NATO's move into Central Europe is the best way to ensure Polish security, many Polish political experts argue. But using NATO to thwart Russian imperialism is risky.
``Our joining Western structure must be considered an ongoing process. We know very well this is a problem of several years,'' Bahr says. ``Russians are the sort of people who must be constantly engaged in dialogue.''
Fierce opposition from Moscow has put the brakes on Western efforts to push NATO eastward. Russian President Boris Yeltsin, for example, warned of a ``cold peace,'' at a security summit in Budapest last December.
Some see Poland as the main diplomatic arena for the West and Russia to battle over NATO expansion, since it is the largest Central European nation with a population of 38 million. But neighboring Ukraine should be considered the main objective.
``Ukraine is the key,'' says political scientist Zdzislaw Najder. ``A stable Poland, anchored in the West, would help stabilize Ukraine.... If Russia accepts an independent Ukraine that will be a clear signal that its entire foreign policy outlook has changed.''
While Polish membership in NATO could improve regional stability, Poland's failure to join both NATO and the EU would leave it in ``an economic gray area,'' open to Russian efforts to undermine Warsaw's economic independence, Mr. Najder says. Moscow has leverage in the Polish economy, which still depends greatly on Russian oil and gas.
Left on its own, between East and West, ``there's a danger of Poland becoming a tempting object first for seduction and then abduction,'' he adds.