The Polish workers and the Soviet Union are playing a game of chicken -- with the Polish Communist Party leadership caught in the middle. The weekend firing in Warsaw of six of its Central Committee members underlines the almost impossible squeeze the dangerous game puts on the Polish party.
What all three principal protagonists -- the Polish workers, the Polish Communist Party, and the Soviet leadership -- want to avoid, albeit for differing reasons, is Soviet armed intervention in Poland to reassert Moscow's ultimate control over the country's internal politics. (There is a fourth principal in the drama, the Polish Roman Catholic Church, which is on the side of the workers, which wants equally to avoid Soviet intervention, but which is involved in events more obliquely than the other three.)
To head off the need for the sending of Soviet tanks into Warsaw, the Kremlin makes veiled hints about it, hoping simultaneously to scare the Polish workers from pressing their demands too far and to persuade the Polish Communist Party leadership to prevent the workers from getting away with too much.
On their side, the workers are aware of the tremendous cost to the Soviet Union in world opinion if it sought to crush by force their movement that has just won on paper the right, unprecedented in any communist or Soviet-bloc country, to a free trade union movement. So the workers are insisting that their own government and Communist Party deliver on the promises given in the settlement of the Baltic port workers' and Silesian mine workers' strikes earlier this summer.
This explains the workers' one-hour warning stoppage Oct. 3 and the threat of a general strike Oct. 20 if their demands are not met and on the way to implementation by then.
Three times since Poland was forced into the Soviet bloc after World War II the Polish workers have taken on their communist government and party for greater freedoms: in 1956, 1970, and 1976. Three times the workers have gotten promises on paper in the direction they wanted. But three times, the promises once given were whittled away. This is why in 1980 the workers have insisted on getting a free trade union movement outside the Communist Party framework.
On the three earlier occasions, the promises were to be implemented through the party-controlled unions; and -- as the workers learned -- within that framework, party promises could eventually be reneged on. This time, the workers -- skillfully using nonviolent sit-ins rather than street demonstrations or violence -- have made a free trade union movement the key issue. With it, they intend to hold the party's feet to the fire.
The party's reaction is bound to be a combination of stick and carrot. The newly appointed party leader, Stanislaw Kania, is under pressure from Moscow to apply the maximum of stick. But Mr. Kania knows that before any stick can be applied without provoking a fresh explosion, he needs to offer the workers a maximum of carrot. At the moment, the carrot takes the form of: a restatement of the promises accompanied by apparently grudging initial moves suggesting implementation of them; an admission of past mistakes; and the offering up of scapegoats -- such as the six Central Committee members ousted at the weekend and the high- living former head of radio and television, Maciej Szczepanski.
The six men just ousted were hard-liners.Their removal gives Mr. Kania a freer hand to make such concessions to the workers as he thinks advisable. It suggests that he is confident he can go in this direction without for the moment prompting Soviet intervention.
Yet both Mr. Kania and his mentors in the Kremlin remain caught between a rock and a hard place. If a free trade union movement is allowed to function effectively in Poland, a precedent will have been established that could eventually cause an erosion of both Soviet and Communist Party control in other Soviet bloc countries. (Mr. Kania has the added problem of meeting the Polish workers' economic demands, which will be hard to do without either unpopular belt-tightening or harm to the already ailing Polish economy.)
As for Moscow, can it allow the dangerous precedent of a free trade union operating within the Soviet bloc? Or will it eventually feel that it must send in tanks to stop it? If it chooses the latter, it will put paid to detente with the US, turn potentially conciliatory Western European governments into anti-Soviet hard-liners, and perhaps ensure its own encirclement by hostile powers.