Strategic Poland -- Soviets under pressure as unions grow

Like Mt. St. Helens, the Polish crisis is threatening to blow again. The movement for free trade unions has continued to gather steam and has a momentum of its own. In effect, this has brought into play inside Poland -- always unique in communist Eastern Europe -- a third competing power center alongside the two that have been there all along: the Polish Communist Party and the Roman Catholic Church.

Beyond that, the workers' movement is close to setting the place for these two long-accepted power centers -- challenging both but being overtly careful to reject neither.

The correspondent of the Paris newspaper Le Monde goes so far as to speak of Polish society as a whole reorganizaing itself in absolute calm and within the existing system. Significantly, he says the free trade union movement is reaching into the countryside of Poland.

The question now more than ever is: Will the Soviet Union and other countries of the Soviet bloc feel able to allow this process to continue in the very land that is Moscow's most strategically placed and most populous ally in Eastern Europe?

The Polish Communist Party leadership is divided and uncertain about how to avoid either an open, violent clash with or complete surrender to the workers. Either eventuality could provoke armed Soviet intervention.A measure of both its dilemma and its internal divisions is the party's inability to agree ona date for the extraordinary congress decided at the plenum meeting that followed the withdrawal of Edward Gierek from the top job last month.

The party's dilemma also explains its stalling in honoring its promise to accept registration of the main free trade union group called Solidarity. This organization, which has an estimated potential membership of up to 7 million, is the one led by the Gdansk shipyard worker, Lech Walesa.

Mr. Walesa had called off a proposed strike for Oct. 20 intended as a protest against the party's dragging of its feet in implementing the Aug. 31 agreement that brought the massive Baltic port strikes of the summer to an end. But he told a workers' gathering in Krakow Oct. 18 that Solidarity would go ahead with elections and other activities Oct. 20, regardless of whether it had won by then official recognition through acceptance of its registration. Solidarity was big enough, he said, for its members to be afraid of nothing.

An indication of the concern of the Polish government and Communist Party came the same day as the Krakow rally. The Polish Foreign Ministry called in representatives of the United States, Britain, and West Germany to complain about the way their countries' news media, political parties, and trade unions were dealing with events in Poland. This, the official Polish news agency said, amounted to "quite broad" interference in Poland's internal affairs.

Coincidentally, Soviet-bloc foreign ministers were meeting Oct. 19 and 20 in Warsaw for a general discussion on East-West relations, which (Polish officials said) had nothing to do with events in Poland itself. Yet it is a fact that some of the Soviet-bloc governments have voiced concern about what is happening in Poland. Most notably, East German communist leader Erich Honecker said Oct. 13, "Poland is and will remain a socialist [i.e. communist] country. . . . Together with our friends in the socialist camp, we will see to that."

The Roman Catholic Church in staunchly Catholic Poland -- locked in a never-ending power struggle with the Polish Communist Party and boosted by having one of its own, in the person of Pope John Paul II, in the papacy in Rome -- appears to be having to run to keep up with the workers' movement. The Polish bishops have associated themselves with the movement from the start. A statement put out by them Oct. 17 supported the free trade unions and called for "normalization" of their status.

Yet in the same statement there were phrases that might be interpreted as equivocal and hinting at episcopal concern: (1) lest the workers try to go too far too fast; and (2) for the Polish government in its awesome dilemma caught between low productivity and the cost of honoring promises to increase wage increases.

After a reference to the need for all sides to be concerned "social order," the bishops said: "After normalization of the rights of the working people, [ members of] the new unions will fulfill their duties with increased energies on their jobs."

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