Poland is teetering on the edge of a decision that could affect the whole of the Soviet empire in Europe and the future of the remnants of detente between Moscow and Washington.
Today is the day when the Polish Supreme Court is scheduled to rule in the battle between the Polish workers, set on free trade unions, and the Polish Communist Party, committed to maintaining its monopoly of power in the state.
What makes this so much more than a mere Polish issue is that it challenges the ideological stand on which the Soviet leadership has always based its absolute control both at home and within countries of the communist-governed Soviet bloc. The danger is that if the Polish Communist Party is seen to be losing its absolute control at home, the Kremlin might feel obliged to turn its tanks on the Polish workers challenging the party, lest the Polish workers establish a precedent for workers throughout the Soviet empire.
Soviet tanks in Afghanistan have already dealt a blow to US-Soviet detente. Soviet tanks firing on workers in Poland might finish detente off -- particularly with President-elect Ronald Reagan in the US reaffirming his commitment to "linkage." (Linkage means linking Soviet behavior on any particular issue anywhere in the world with the overall process of detente.)
As the moment of decision in Poland drew near, both sides -- workers and government -- kept up pressures in support of their respective positions.
The workers say they will start selective sit-in strikes if the Supreme Court rules against them. Bus drivers and medical workers were already starting token strikes in some cities. The free trade union organizers have issued instructions about food and other needs once the threatened stoppages begin in earnest. All this is presumably to underline to the party and government that the workers mean business.
For their part, the party and government have stepped up veiled public warnings to the workers that strikes could produce the Soviet armed intervention in Poland that virtually all Poles want to avoid. The risk of that has been underlined by the showing on Polish television Nov. 8 of joint Soviet-Polish military maneuvers on Polish territory. (There are Soviet troops based in Poland under Warsaw Pact arrangements, but they have never yet actively intervened against protest or dissidence in the country.)
As a carrot to the workers, the Polish government has chosen the eve of the Supreme Court's ruling to announce a shortened workweek, beginning in 1981. Shorter working hours were promised in the Aug. 31 agreement between government and workers that ended the effective shipyard workers' sit-ins back in the summer.
The drama of the past three months in Poland reflects on both sides a willingness to compromise -- at least in some measure -- because they share the desire to avoid Soviet armed intervention. But for each there is a dilemma: Each has a minimum position that it is determined not to yield or be maneuvered out of. The challenge for both is to reconcile those minimums.
Correspondent Eric Bourne reports from Warsaw:
On the eve of the Nov. 10 court decision, the leaders of Solidarity indicated they would take a hard, no concessions stand against the government. Unless their demands for a non-political charter were met, they would press ahead with threatened strikes on Wednesday.
Without a dramatic, last-minute breakthrough, another wave of industrial unrest affecting the whole country's future looks almost certain to be more dangerous than that of August.
The fears of ordinary Poles three months ago of some outside, that is, Soviet intervention were being nervously voiced again.
Solidarity is the biggest of the new, independent unions and its "no surrender" mood is visible everywhere. Little placards appeared Sunday in many shop windows, on automobile windshields, and tacked to trees. "Solidarnosc [ Solidarity] today, success tomorrow!" they say.
In a major speech given full play on television, Communist Party leader Stanislaw Kania warned that there are political limits beyond which none should go. At the same time he obviously was trying to leave the door open to compromise and consensus between the union and the government.
In the same program, Krakow steelworkers to whom the speech was made were heard lambasting the party not only over appalling deficiencies in living conditions, but also for the regime's neglect of glaring shortcomings in the way industry has been operated.
"There has never been anything like this on television or in any of the media before," a Polish friend remarked. What made it all the more significant, however, was that all the speakers were party members and activists.
Mr. Kania was seen making notes of what they said and then spoke himself, largely off the cuff, conceding the justice of the criticisms and earnestly trying to win confidence in the party's "renewal" platform.
The tense and uncertain atmosphere throughout the country just now was further evidenced by strikes in Warsaw and other cities by health service workers demanding big pay hikes for the lowest paid and by rolling stock workers in the Wroclaw railyard.
The delicacy of the present situation cannot be overdrawn.
Daily -- with their considerable degree of newfound freedom -- the news media are publishing an ever-escalating list of consumer shortages and pointing to the possible need to ration not only meat but also most other basic food requirements.
It was this that impelled Solidarity apparently to make clear that, if it calls a strike, it will not be applied to anything likely to aggravate the situation still further.