The Soviet empire has acquired an acute case of political and economic indigestion in Poland. This is a matter of enormous interest to all governments everywhere, but particularly to governments living around the fringes of the Soviet empire. It reduces the Kremlin's time and energy for outside ventures.
The Kremlin has so many problems on its plate right now that this one, in addition to the others, is likely to give the outside world a respite for sometime.
Before the workers in the industrial centers of Poland began in early July what has turned into a general strike throughout the country, the Kremlin was already beset by the following problems:
* Unresolved differences with China so acute that Moscow deemed it necessary to assign nearly one-third of its military power, both conventional and nuclear, to the Chinese frontier.
* An attempt to conquer Afghanistan that is no nearer success now than when it started eight months ago.
* Commitments to Cuba and Vietnam that are expensive and not currently bring ing in dividends commensurate with the cost. The use of Cuban troops in Angola and Ethiopia is one reason the United States has turned against "detente." The commitment to Vietnam has weakened Moscow's relations with India, which is engaged now in a tentative rapprochement with China.
* General economic stagnation. The Soviet growth rate is down to 0.7 percent , the lowest since World War II.
Moscow's new Polish problem comes in two equally serious parts -- military and political. On the military side, Poland lies across Moscow's supply line to its forces in East Germany. Poland is therefore essential to Moscow's whole military front against NATO. Even a hint of disaffection in Poland tends to undermine Moscow's western front.
On the political side a workers' strike in Poland exposes and advertises the inability of the Eastern communist regimes to satisfy the aspirations of the industrial working class. But even more serious for Moscow is the danger of contamination spreading from Poland into the Soviet Union itself.
Kremlin watchers think that one reason for the invasion of Afghanistan was fear that the Muslim tribes inside the Soviet Union would be contaminated by Muslim unrest across the border in Afghanistan. The danger of Soviet industrial workers being contaminated by Poland must be far greater. If the Polish workers could make good their demand for electing their own leaders, Soviet workers might decide to want the same. And that would be a blow at the heart of the Soviet political system.
The issue facing the Polish government and peoples was stated simply and starkly by Polish Communist Party Chairman Edward Gierek. In communist dialect it read:
"There are limits that must not be overstepped by anyone. These limits are marked by Poland's reason for being. Only a socialist Poland can be a free and independent state with inviolable fronters."
Translated into western English this would read:
The Soviet Union will allow Poles to have a government run by Poles and freedom from Soviet troops in total occupation of Poland providedm the Polish government runs everything in Poland according to Soviet formulas with total regard for the national interests of the Soviet state. But, if Poles deviate from the Soviet system, then Soviet troops will simply take over Poland, incorporate it into the Soviet Union, and run it the way they run Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Poland would once more disappear as it did when it was carved up by Prussia, Austria, and Russia.
Party chairman Gierek was telling the Polish workers that he cannot give in to their central demand for the right to pick their own leaders because this would undermine the system and mean Soviet troops moving into every factory and every city and the suppression of a Polish state.
But while Moscow thus threatens through Mr. Gierek to extinguish the Polish government and supperss Poland, the Soviet leaders back in the KRemlin must hope that the warning will be sufficient. They would undoubtedly use their troops if they thought their military front and their own system of state control was being undermined.
Still, they know that the use of Soviet tanks to crush resistance in Poland would be deeply disturbing to all other communist governments and to all subject peoples inside the Soviet empire. It would also distress Communist parties outside the empire. It could drive several of them into association with the Chinese brand of communism.
Thus Moscow is faced with a choice of evils. Which is worse for the Kremlin -- to crush out independence in Poland with Soviet troops, or risk dangerous ideas spreading from Poland into the rank and file of industrial workers in the Soviet Union?
There is no happy way out for the leaders in the Kremlin. And even if they can find a way of avoiding a choice, there is still the fact for all the world to see that the industrial workers of Poland are thoroughly unhappy about the Soviet system. What is billed as a workers' paradise is, in fact, a workers' prison in which the industrial workers are deprived of any say in the government. They want two things above all else -- the right to elect their own leaders and the right to strike.
But if the state were to grant those two demands, it would be giving up the central and essential feature of the Soviet system. The state, in that system, tells the workers what to do. The state assigns "leaders" to workers. But those "leaders" deliver orders from the state to the workers. They do not speak for the workers in the councils of state.
President Carter in Washington has troubles galore. But Mr. Brezhnev in Moscow must wish that he could trade his troubles for Mr. Carter's. The Polish problem is not going to break up the Soviet empire. But it is a sample of the sort of thing that someday, if repeated often enough, might do just that. It is a reminder to the Kremlin that there are weaknesses in the structure of the Soviet empire that are not going away and cannot be cured.