Kremlin crossroads

As noticeable as the stirrings in Gdansk, Szczecin, and other northern Polish towns is the self-conscious calm in Moscow. The first official Soviet statement on the crisis said it was "completely the internal affair" of Poland. Behind the outward restraint must lie profound consternation, for the Soviet Union faces perhaps its biggest challenge to date in Eastern Europe. The question is whether it will permit further loosening of internal controls in a client state and preserve the gains of detente with the West. Or whether, out of fear, it will feel itself pressed to the wall, move to put down the growing Polish rebellion, and thereby cause an even deeper worsening of East-West relations.

So far the signs point to the more reasonable course despite the obvious risks in Soviet terms. If the Polish workers succeed in exacting political concessions, including independent trade unions, this would represent a fundamental departure from the structure of communism, in effect a first step toward a pluralistic society. This would be bound to have repercussions elsewhere in Eastern Europe, whetting the appetites of millions of people who chafe under the Soviet thumb. And, closer to home, it would feed labor unrest in the USSR itself. Reports of trouble at Soviet plants earlier this year suggest the soil for an outburst of discontent exists.

Yet, while it is hard to see the Russians acquiescing to sweeping political reforms, it is not unthinkable they will have to accept some measure of reform in order to keep Eastern Europe under control. The risk of military intervention is equally high, perhaps even higher. If Soviet troops were marched into Poland's cities as they were into Czechoslovakia in 1968 it cannot be ruled out they would meet with Polish resistance. Perhaps even resistance in other bloc countries. The last thing Soviet leaders would want now -- coming after their ill-fated intervention in Afghanistan -- is the world's spotlight on the spectacle of Russian soldiers putting down a rebellion by workers, the very segment of the population the Marxist order is supposed to represent and defend.

It should not go unnoticed that it is the policy of East-West detente which has both provided the climate in which Poles are striving to loosen the limits of freedom -- and the rationale for keeping Soviet tanks out of Poland. Resorting to force now risks destroying detente. Ten years ago, in 1970, when similar disturbances flared in Poland, the Russians clearly concluded that pressures and economic difficulties in Eastern Europe could be better managed if relations with the West were improved and life made easier for people in the bloc countries. The policy worked for a time, as trade with the West flourished and consumer goods appeared in greater abundance.

But economic deficiencies have again led to a struggle for liberalization, and the Soviets are faced with how much they can give without intolerably feeding the momentum for greater and greater independence. If the Polish events were not enough, they confront a whole spectrum of other setbacks and problems. They have been unable to pacify the people of Afghanistan, where their troops continue to meet fierce resistance. As a result of the Afghan incursion, they have suffered moral losses in the West and in the third world. They have lost credibility in the West European communist parties, some of which now declare their solidarity with the Polish workers. And, not least of all, they have massive economic troubles at home which are aggravated by the Polish crisis and which can be eased only with the help of the West.

This is, thus, a time of momentous decision for the men in the Kremlin. They stand at a crossroads. Looking at the future, they can either accept the idea of increasing diversity within their East European empire, with all this would imply for their own society. Or they can use the mailed fist and risk upsetting the whole "West-politik" they have so laboriously pursued in the past decade, without assuring even then that they can indefinitely contain East European yearnings for change. The West can only hope that, however difficult for them, they will choose the former.

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