Eastern Europe is watching its fellow communist state of Poland, now troubled by strikes and serius economic unrest, as intently as it did back in 1956. That was when the "bread and justice" strikes by the Poznan workers spilled over into riots that toppled the Warsaw government and sent a shock wave through the whole area.
It produced the uprising in Hungary a few months later; and Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria all had to clamp on armed security measures to snuff out the stirrings in their own countries.
Ten years ago it happened again in Poland, with violent rioting by shipyard workers and dockers in the Baltic ports. Again it brough down the government, and the present regime headed by Edward Gierek came to power.
This time the movement is as militant, but it is different. There have been strikes at more than 200 enterprises in various parts of Poland in the last six weeks.
At the same time, both workers and authorities have shied away from any violence, and most stoppages were settled with wage increases to meet rising food prices.
Nonetheless, East Europeans are looking on just as intently as in 1956. They are nervously aware that Poland's continuing labor unrest is just as significant for themselves both in terms of how it may end and of what the Russians might do if it does not.
For weeks the regime had taken comfort from the fact that the country's "elite" industrial centers -- the Baltic and the coal, iron, and steel region in Silesia -- both stayed quiet.
Last week, however, the 16,000 men of the vast Lenin shipyard at Gdansk stopped work and injected an entirely new dimension into the scene. By the weekend their action had spread along the coast to bring two other shipping centers, Gdynia and Sopot, and another 50,000 men to a standstill. Local transport and other services were also idle.
Everything that is happening now is entirely without precendent in Eastern Europe.
Party leadership promises of pay hikes and greater consideration for workers' needs and "human relations" have fallen on deaf ears.
After several weeks of ignoring events, the Polish news media have admitted that workers are "striking" -- a word not normally admitted into the communist vocabulary -- and are reporting what is going on.
Irked by the fact that from the start a dissident group (set up during the 1976 strikes) was effectively and swiftly monitoring each new stoppage as it occurred and briefing the foreign press, the official news agency Inter Pres now is following suit.
The original issue -- the increased meat price of July 1 -- seems almost forgotten as the workers' demands become increasingly political, which means they are also increasingly difficult for the government to meet.
The remarkable discipline displayed by the workers adds to its dilemma. They have remained at their work places -- sleeping in the open or in their workshops -- have refrained from marches or public demonstrations, and have calmly insisted on stating their case through their own chosen leaders.
A Polish reporter for Reuter news agency graphically described the Scene in the Lenin yards and how citizens had decorated the gates with flowers as tokens of goodwill.
He told of the orderly manner in which meetings were being conducted, and how some of Premier Babiuch's radio remarks were greeted with jeers, while many declined to listen at all becase they had "heard it before."
Workers' spokesmen apparently had no qualms in allowing themselves to be quoted. The government, one said, would "no longer be able to ignore what the workers have to say," nor their demand for greater democracy in public life.
An engineer on one strike committee said: "The most important achievement [of the strikes] will be if the authorities understand better the need for a free flow of information." It was an allusion to Premier Babiuch's confession that the country had not been given the full truth of its economic plight.
Above all now stands the spreading demands for free, independent labor unions.
This goes to the heart of the party's position ad its jealous guarding of its "leading role" -- the Kremlin's ultimate fiat for all communist parties once they are in power.
Soon after the 1956 reforms, tne new workers' councils were deprived of their independence because it infringed the rule. Ever since they have been noneffective junior partners in a "conference of workers' self-management" dominated by party and official union representatives.
Things have moved so far in Poland, however, that the government may find it cannot do otherwise but find a new arrangement at least partially satisfactory to the workers. That is, unless it -- and Moscow -- are prepared to risk the kind of confrontation that could so easily inflame the whole situation.
The present view is that this latter scenario is not on the cards. Nobody wants it.