The red and white flag of Poland is everywhere, fluttering gaily in a warm, early spring breeze. But it proclaims not a joyful anniversary but a nationwide state of alert . . . and somber foreboding.
After two weeks' absence from Poland, the changed atmosphere is at once evident. A people normally lively and forthright in the discussion of affairs has gone quiet and thoughtful. The whole country is waiting, watchful, anxious.
At time of writing the immediate need was to break the bitter deadlock between the government and the Solidarity union over last week's violent clash in Bydgoszcz.
Solidarity had prepared an escalating strike plan should the government-union talks fail. Its regional offices moved their headquarters into the factories in readiness. Solidarity leader Lech Walesa's founding branch at Gdansk is now working from the Lenin shipyard where the new independent unions were launched. 'Solidarity," murmurs one Pole approvingly, "we need it. But how is it going to end?"
But behind the scenes another crucial struggle is under way. For the Communist Party leadership itself is locked in perhaps the final battle over the basic issues of reform. The party's top echelon, the Politburo, sat in continuous session throughout the night of March 24-25.
No one seems under any illusions that the next few days, a week at the most, will decide everything. If the government-union talks fail, the really "last chance" may come Monday when a special session of parliament is being convened.
The liberals are viewing this procedure with some hope. It is seen as significant that it is not the party's Central Committee that is being called into session. Instead Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski and party leader Stanislaw Kania seem to be turning directly to the nation in search of two things:
* The demonstration of support they need to overcome opposition to reform from within the party bureaucracy.
* The social peace required to give the reform program a better chance of genuine fulfillment.
Few Poles appear to doubt that the violent incident in Bydgoszcz was largely brought about by the forces interested in halting the reform process.
It is suggested here also that those same forces rushed the leadership into its initially clumsy reaction to the storm of protest roused by the security militia's harsh action against union activists. The militia, a Politburo statement said, had --law and the instructions of the local authorities.
The statement also accused some of Solidarity's local leaders of stimulating an atmosphere of mass neurosis which was creating a state of anarchy throughout the country. Further, the statement warned that members of the party, regardless of being members also of the new union, could not be permitted to take part in strikes or other such action.
This last has produced its own counterreaction in a tide of protests from local party organizations. This shows beyond doubt that the mass of the party's rank and file is behind Solidarity and angered by evidence that the police, for the first time since the crisis began in August, resorted to the brutality that has been the final catalyst behind every outbreak of public unrest since the 1950s.
The Bydgoszcz developments, said the party daily Trybuna Ludu, stirred workers' emotions throughout the country.
Party organizations in factories adopted many resolutions. From one big plant came a blunt declaration that "no matter what the reasons were, the police action should not have taken place."
"People demand a thorough explanation . . . and punishment of those who bear responsibility for the dangerous aggravation of the situation in Poland," was one forthright comment.
An open letter addressed to his fellow party members by Stefan Bratkowski, president of the Polish journalists' association and a leading reform publicist, appealed to them to support Mr. Kania and General Jaruzelski, both regarded as genuine protagonists of "partnership" with Solidarity and the nation.
In it he roundly condemned the conservative opposition to reform as those who were presenting themselves to Poland's allies as "the only force" capable of preserving and protecting its alliance with the Soviet bloc.
Critical days are ahead. It is said that in the first meeting between the government and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, awareness of the stark realities of the situation were discussed in terms of the looming hazards of Poland being plunged into civil strife.
Mr. Walesa has again fought hard to impose moderation on his more militant lieutenants. He finally gained a temporary victory that at best, however, was but a respite for the government in which the deadline for the strike program was extended.
According to a Financial Times analysis form Warsaw, party hard-liners initially hoped that the Bydgoszcz incident would provoke Solidarity to an immediate local strike. This would presumably have closed down the nearby railroad junction of Inowroclaw, and potentially disrupted the Warsaw Pact exercises in the region.
This is in turn would have been viewed as chaos by a Politburo that now leans toward a hard line itself. And this would have triggered a crackdown either by Polish security forces or by Soviet intervention.
In countering this ploy, the tactic of party moderates, the Financial Times continues, is to gain as many days as possible before a general strike either to try to force a compromise past the Politburo hard-liners or failing that, to convoke a Central Committee meeting to vote hard-liners off the Politburo altogether.
The moderates take as a hint that compromise is still possible the conspicuous failure of Kania himself to apportion blame for the Bydgoszcz incident. He has still left open the option of disavowing the brutality of local Bydgoszcz security officials.