Polish workers: a bigger challenge for Soviets than Tito was

The reforms the Polish workers have forced on their government could prove further reaching in the long run even than Tito's historic break with Moscow back in 1948.

By enormous self-discipline and skill they have united their country in a way their government has hitherto utterly failed to do. Moreover, there was such unity that to have employed force of any kind to break it would certainly have brought down the government with incalculable consequences.

"Poland has changed greatly in the last two or three years," a Gdansk strike committee member remarked to me at the height of the crisis.

"There is such a spirit of solidarity here," he added, "and not only here. Poland's people were never before so determined and so united."

By winning such unprecedented gains the Polish workers will be watched closely by their East bloc counterparts.

Kremlin anxieties, in fact, are probably more directed toward the political "fallout" of this crisis throughout Eastern Europe than to the Polish events themselves.

[Reuter reports that while agreement was reached between the government and striking coalminers in Silesia political dissidents maintained strikes were still continuing in the region].

The Soviet news media began by virtually ignoring the strikes. They jammed Western broadcasts in the Russian languages to keep out the news. Inevitably, however, it spread to many who could still hear shortwave.

Russians in the border regions, many of them Polish-speaking, pick up Polish radio and telivision. For the past few weeks, the several hundred copies of the Polish party daily Trybuna Ludu sent to Moscow and maybe even more to Leningrad have been snapped up by avid Russian readers.

Poland knows that it cannot follow Yugoslavia's 1948 act when it broke out of the bloc, and does not propose to. But what has just happened here could prove in the long term to be of even greater significance.

In 1953 East German workers staged a desperate, unavailing revolt that ended in loss of life. They will surely draw conclusions from the gains won now by Polish comrades through nonviolent means.

Already in East Germany, there are reports of tremendous interest inside the factories, with no possibility of the authorities shutting out the news.

Neither Czechoslovakia nor Romania -- East Europe's hard-liners -- can feel immune.

Since the former's bid for reform was crushed by Russian tanks, it had endured a decade of repressive rule. But till now it was, after East Germany, the best off in the bloc in consumer terms.

Currently, however, it is going through a lean period, with severe austerities ahead and minimal wage gains foreseen through 1981. A union leader warned recently that greater demands on the workers without real pay improvements could bring "conflict" on the work-shop floor.

Romania could prove even more vulnerable, though there is little doubt the leadership would not hesitate to use tough measures in any situation like the Polish strikes.

President Ceausescu did so in 1977 when miners in western Romania struck. Troops and police were moved in, "ring leaders" were exiled to other parts of the country, promises were made of better consumer supplies. In practice, the latter bore fruit for only a few weeks. Since then, living standards have, if anthing, deteriorated.

(By contrast, Hungarians could be encouraged by the Polish example.Its own reforms gave considerable rights to the unions, as well as greater tolerance and improved living conditions all around.)

While Poles still remain apprehensive about their current situation, wondering where it will all lead to, they also feel there is more solid ground for optimism than at any other time in the past three decades.

"The Russians," an official remarked, "accepted our 'unorthodox' farming and our relations with the church.

"The stricter ideologists in the Kremlin will disapprove, but nonetheless we think they will accept our independent unions and their new standing in our society in the same way."

The Poles' success in winning independent unions can be attributed to their astonishing solidarity.

To the outside observer this is demonstrably true. It emerges in all one's conversations, whether with officials who are members of the Communist Party or with ordinary, man-in-the-street Poles.

Despite the growing inconveniences of life in the Baltic cities, people remained solidly behind the strikers. Here in Warsaw, where life continued normally, the sympathy and support were just as evident.

Everyone wanted the strike to end, but not before the workers' demands had been met. The workers, in fact, brought about the national unity for which Communist Party leader Edward Gierek had pleaded in vain at the February party congress.

Orthodox die-hards within the party will surely try to weaken or dilute the coming legislation on new labor laws, on pay, prices, pensions, and the removal of privileged treatment accorded party and government officials, as well as police in areas such as special stores and higher family allowances.

But it is extremely doubtful whether they can or will succeed. There would be a lightning reaction, another and greater strike movement, and in all probability the creation of the political vacuum the regime has most dreaded these past few highly critical weeks.

In fact, intellectuals, and even radicals at odds with the party since 1956 seem confident that this time things are going to improve.

Such people are not opponents of a "socialist" Poland, but have long argued for changes within the system. These they believe are now at hand.

The feeling seems shared even by the more thoughtful dissidents. Historian Adam Michnik, one of the KOR (Workers Self-Defense Committee) activists detained during the strikes and freed under the Gdansk agreement, said to reporters:

"Things can only become better after this. It is really what everyone wanted . . . and without bloodshed and repression. Reason and moderation have prevailed."

It was, he said, also the best for the authorities -- "we have to live with each other" -- as well as for the Soviet Union, because "they also were interested in seeing the crisis resolved without a clash."

Polish officials have been saying the same thing all along.

"The last thing Russia would have wanted to do is intervene," a senior man in government said to me.

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