Prudence in Poland

Lech Walesa of Poland earns another cheer from his admirers at home and abroad for deftly navigating through another confrontation with the Polish government. He has won for the independent trade unions a legal charter that does not specify the leading role of the communist party in Polish life -- an extraordinary, historic step in the evolution of Soviet-bloc communism. The Russians have apparently accepted the compromise (an annex to the charter still upholds the party's role). A national crisis has been avoided. But Poles know enough to temper any feelings of optimism with prudent caution. The fundamental questions remain:

* Can Poland develop the vigorous political leadership needed to fashion and push through essential economic reforms?

* Will the new government and the independent trade union movement be able to cooperate and pull in the same direction -- both for the sake of Poland's internal progress and to keep an anxious Soviet Union at bay?

* Will Mr. Walesa be able to persuade the militants within his own union movement that a reform program merits worker support -- and continuing short-term sacrifices in the interest of long-range economic rewards?

There clearly will be tensions and sensitivities as Poland tries to steer in a new economic direction. But steer it must. It cannot go on with its stultifying, inefficient system of management, a system which has brought it to its present debt-ridden state. A 280-man government commission comprised of leading reformers as well as representatives from the new unions is working on a package of reforms. These will presumably include, among other things, decentralization of decisionmaking and help for Poland's private agriculture.

While this process moves forward, however, the hard-liners within the party and government establishment can be expected to resist change. This is why it is so important that new leaders be brought to the fore. And why it is disappointing to many Poles that no date has yet been set for a party congress at which new appointments can be made in the ruling Central Committee. The fear is that the dynamism for change within the party sparked by the events of August may be lost. Even Poland's defense minister has warned against letting the momentum slow.

Mr. Walesa, meantime, more moderate than some of his colleagues, must protect his flanks within the Solidarity union movement. So often have the Polish people been burned by promises of a better life they have understandably grown skeptical. Many workers demand more benefits and demand them right away, something the government is in no position to provide. Instead the immediate future is bound to require patience, belt-tightening, and self-discipline. Mr. Walesa shows his awareness of this when he pointedly tells crowds of workers: "In front of us is a big line of work and everyone has his own piece of this line. . . . Everyone has to go to work and work hard." The government, however, will have to help him by presenting a good program that he can sell to the workers.

Despite the uncertainties ahead, the West can only marvel anew at the courage -- and restraint -- which has already brought such unparalleled change in Poland. It will want to do what it can to help the Poles out of their economic difficulties -- provided the new Kania government comes up with a feasible program of reform. And while it must be careful not to exploit the situation publicly out of fear of making the Russians even more apprehensive than they are , it cannot but be quietly and encouragingly mindful of the potential impact of the Polish experiment on the whole future of communism.

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