Domestic peace, and more, in Poland are hanging by a terribly slender thread. It is drawn so tight now what a wrong move by either government or unions could easily break it -- with unpredictable consequences.
Twice since mid-February, when the new government came in with its conciliatory appeal for patience and calm, the country has come close to the brink of disaster.
But the regime's appeal won considerable public response. And in that better atmosphere the regime surmounted the threat of nationwide action by farmers and students -- although only with far-reaching concessions to most of their demands.
This time the latest conflict has been given a highly sensitive new dimension by last week's action at the northwestern city of Bydgoszcz in which the police beat Solidarity organizers while evicting them from a government building.
It was the first time, in fact, the authorities -- central or regional -- had called on the police to intervene since the crisis began eight months ago.
The effect has been to focus -- at least momentarily --the entire argument between government and union on the most bitterly felt public grievance since the Poznan shootings of 1956. That is, police brutality against worker protests -- often with fatal results, but, fortunately for Poland, not in this 1980-81 crisis.
Five days of almost unrelieved tension since the Bydgoszcz events have indicated how difficult compromise is going to be this time. Two factors will determine whether the three-month truce urged by Premier Wojciech Jaruzelski has been punctured beyond repair.
1. Whether Lech Walesa, Solidarity's national chairman can persuade union militants to stick to his own realistic, moderate line. At almost the last hour on the night of March 23-24 his walkout from an angry union meeting, and his threat to resign unless there was further negotiation with the government, swung his colleagues away from immediate confrontation.
His proposal, intended to cool the present heated atmosphere, carried overwhelmingly -- to hold talks with the government March 25 while threatening a two- to four-hour warning strike March 27 and a general strike March 31.
2. Whether equally wise counsel will prevail on the government-party side to restrain it from overreacting and to make effective gestures to quiet public anger and the fresh distrust aroused by the Bydgoszcz affair. (Hard-liners may be none too dismayed by the recent turn of events)
The government's official news agency was quick to welcome the union's move away from an immediate strike. it saw this as opening a door to a "breakthrough" in understanding whereby the threatened warning strikes and next week's general stoppage could be averted. But whether the two sides can make use of this last minute reprieve is yet to be seen.
General Jaruzelski took over on a note of moderation but firmness. He indicated the government would not hesitate to order a state of emergency should industrial unrest seem to go too far against Poland's already strained economic and security interests.
These interests have obviously been jeopardized in the latest situation. Any government might deem it necessary, in such circumstances, to intervene.
But any hurried decision -- above all in the current taut atmosphere -- to make illegal the kind of strike action Solidarity is threatening could easily spark an even worse situation.
The union might move further beyond Mr. Walesa's control and create a challenge in which the government's own position and, still more dangerous, the professed "confidence" of its bloc allies in the Poles' ability to handle their crisis for themselves, would both come seriously into question.
For the past last couple of days, an obviously perturbed Lech Walesa has been vainly warning that excessive union response could "lose us everything."
One of Solidarity's legal-political advisers earnestly told the heated March 23-24 meeting that the present government is the "only authority available" in today's Poland. "We don't want to change it for a foreign one," he said. As he spoke, the continuing Warsaw Pact military exercises in and around Poland gave point to his words.
Everything now must turn on the outcome of talks begun Sunday, and resuming today, March 25, between Mr. Walesa and Deputy Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Rakowski.
The latter is one of two regime figures nearer the eye of the Polish storm than anyone else just now. The other, also a deputy premier, is Mieczyslaw Jagielski, who skillfully negotiated the strike settlements with Solidarity last August and, later, a series of useful economic agreements with the Russians.
Mr. Jagielski was recently in Moscow again, reportedly arranging further aid, which already is on a scale big enough to suggest Russia would still very much prefer to foot that kind of bill rather than the incalculable burdens of physical intervention in Poland.
Mr. Rakowski, a member of the party committee, is best known as editor since 1958 of the most widely regarded of the Polish weeklies, Polityka, and a realistic spokesman for the new leadership's promised democratization within party and government as the only way to overcome present disenchantment and apathy.