Poland: new leadership; old problems

In less than two weeks, Poland acquired a new party leader as well as a prime minister and a reshuffled government. But this major regime shakeup and removal of the man inevitably identified with the failures of the last five years do nothing in themselves to resolve the leadership's troubles.

At best it has won a breathing space as it strives to regain what new party chief Stanislaw Kania sees as the government's first priority: public confidence , now at its lowest ebb in more than two decades.

"People just do not trust the authorities anymore," a professional man remarked to me after listening to Mr. Kania's policy statement at the weekend.

"It is going to take them a long time -- and genuine deeds -- to establish any credibility."

Even as the new leader's words were broadcast, and despite the multiplicity of reforms to which the government is already committed, there were unconfirmed reports of conditional stoppage threats, if not of actual strikes, at industrial plants in the eastern border region adjacent to the Soviet Union.

Even with the far-reaching concessions that started the Baltic ports working again, it required another week to get 200,000 Silesian miners and other workers back.

In their case, the government "bought" them off quickly. Coal has become Poland's most important weapon -- not only in its energy crisis, but also in the battle to expand Western exports for hard currency to help pay off that nation's massive debts from borrowing. A prolonged strike embracing the whole of southern Poland's iron and coal belt would have been an incalculable national calamity.

With or without strike action, the idea of trade union democracy -- to say nothing of further-reaching reforms -- is fast taking fire throughout the country.

Important sections of society have yet to speak. One is the students, whose forerunners played a big part in the ultimate downfall of the previous Gomulka regime. They have not been heard of for some time; they were not involved in the earlier industrial troubles of the Gierek decade.

"They are not 'dropouts' in the sense of giving up studies," a young post-graduate woman observed. "They have just 'dropped out' of politics. Outside their universities, the students have been more concerned with being 'modern' in clothes and music.

"So many are born Catholics anyway, but increasingly they have moved closer to, and look more and more, to th church. I shall be surprised if we do not hear from them soon."

That could happen when the universities' new term starts at the beginning of next month. There are already reports of lively student discussions about reforms of their organizations, and even of forming new ones. Here in Warsaw, university teachers are said to be moving along the same lines.

The Baltic strikers, in fact, have unleashed strong winds of change in Poland that already are blowing more strongly, it seems than those first ones of 1956 that lost their force in two or three years as the party managed to reassert its authority. These forces will not be contained so easily. although still skeptical, still uncertain, all Poland is beginning to talk about them.

The well-known actor Gustav Holoubek drew applause when he declared in the Sejm (parliament) Sept. 5 the artistic world's "respect and admiration" for the Baltic strikers demands, which he said, "are valid for our entire nation."

The Sejm was convened to confirm the new prime minister, Josef Pinkowski. His speech, outlining major economic changes as well as union reform and reduced censorhip, was uneventful. What followed afterward was not.

One after another of the deputies rose to level ringing critisms at the government in language that, to this writer's own frequent observation, is without precedent in the communist bloc.

Few aspects of domestic politics escaped attack. But, most bitterly of all, many speakers assailed the fog of censorship exercised over the whole field of public affairs.

"The working class," said one deputy, "demand guarantees this time because they have no faith in the government's promises. The idiotic propaganda of recent years has stupefied the nation and it is the mass media that is responsible for the present total lack of confidence.

"I have been reporting the same for more than 20 years," an astonished Polish colleague remarked as the barrage went on. "And I've never heard anything like this before, nor [he added] did I expect to."

It was a startling, unique experience also for the communist majority in parliament to have to sit listening to an unparalleled wave of critism aimed directly against itself.

One of the reforms foreshadowed in 1956 was an "independent" sejm "supervising the government" and a government "responsible to the Sejm."

This hope of its becoming a genuine instrument of democracy did not last long. Is the hope to be revived?

Following his election as first secretary, Mr. Kania spoke of the "need" for a truly democratic society and to increase the competence of parliament.

The change at the top had been anticipated, but not so swiftly. Only a few days previously, this writer was told by a well-placed source that Mr. gierek would retire soon, but "with honor" and at a suitable moment when the country was calmer.

Meantime, however, it was also learned that his critics had begun trying to mount a campaign inside the party for his earlier removal. His sudden breakdown provided an unanticipated opportunity.

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