Poland's reformers may be running out of time

Is Poland, sandwiched between last week's successful four-hour warning strike and a wider general work stoppage threatened for this Tuesday, running out of time?

The 90-day industrial truce Polish Premier Wojciech Jaruzelski called for when he came to power still has 45 days to run. But no one believes Poland has that much time.

With a nationwide strike called for Tuesday and the Central Committee of the Polish Communist Party meeting in emergency session at the weekend, tensions were only a little lower than immediately after the police action at Bydgoszcz March 19 that sparked the strike threat.

General Jaruzelski, who assumed office in mid-February, offered a 10-point reform package that has been presented to the Sejm (parliament) but has not been approved. If it is not implemented, a commentator wrote in Zycie Warszawy, "it is impossible to say what will become of this country."

"Can we as Poles permit a situation in which we cease to be masters in our own house?" the commentator continued. "Can we passively or consciously plunge into an element which will engulf us all though we do not know on which shore we shall land?"

Trends appearing after Friday's warning strike, however, have raised hopes a little.

Disciplined and controlled by Solidarity, that four-hour strike may even have had a salutary effect: making everyone think; reducing the crisis to more manageable proportions; and opening the way to a more stable relationship between government and union.

The threat of a nationwide general strike Tuesday hangs in the air. Vice-Premier Mieczyslaw Rakowski and union leader Lech Walesa are to resume negotiations Monday.

Whether the nation will be plunged into a general strike is very much dependent on what happens at the Central Committee plenum. But the atmosphere at Saturday's talks was better. Both sides said progress toward a settlement was being made.

Solidarity has gained some encouragement toward compromise. It is at last getting full play -- with its own texts -- in the news media. Television screened lengthy regional reports revealing the completeness and the orderliness of Friday's four-hour stoppage.

A joint committee is dealing with a disputed government decree on strike pay. The justice minister's interim report on events at Bydgoszcz goes partway toward satisfying the union's demand for official accountability over the violence.

Meanwhile, a new involvement on the part of the Roman Catholic Church appeared at the weekend. A message from Pope John Paul II to the primate, Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, was featured by radio and television.

The message stressed the right of the Poles to solve their problems without foreign interference and urged them to do so. The primate himself had already met with the prime minister. On Saturday he met with Mr. Walesa, whom he doubtless acquainted with the papal message.

As the Central Committee convened, the reformers seemed to have gained ground as a result of recent events.

Bydgoszcz, for one thing, has boomeranged on those who contrived a virtually instant whitewash of the police. It outraged not only Solidarity and the public at large, but also the grass roots of the party.

Party organizations all over the country protested the behavior of city officials and the calling of the police in an action that appeared prearranged. Local reporters come to Warsaw to testify to a meeting of the Polish Journalists' Association that their eyewitness stories of what went on inside the council chamber and the violence outside never "reached public opinion," that is, were spiked, obviously because of the censors.

Still more significant is the groundswell of support for Prime Minister Jaruzelski. Lech Walesa is not the only person to say the incident was aimed at the premier as much as at Solidarity.

The police intervention at Bydgoszcz ensured support for the strike throughout the country. Public sympathy remained with Solidarity even though chronic food shortages are currently worse than usual.

Moreover, among the million party members who belong to the union, there were no strikebreakers. Estimates say 95 percent joined the stoppage, despite the Politburo ruling a few days earlier forbidding communist workers to join "political" strikes.

"Party organizations in the country have demonstrated they want a clear answer to the present crisis," a party source commented to the Monitor. "They are demanding to know who is for 'renewal' and who is not. They want changes in the Politburo."

The first speakers in the party committee's debate were workers who echoed this criticism of the party's leadership and its failure or refusal to heed the voice of the rank and file. They emphasized the necessity for changes at all levels.

The meeting started with a Politburo report that condemned Solidarity for preparing a strike "against socialism." But it conceded some of the main grass-roots demands -- for fresh elections of officers in all party organizations, with multiple candidates and secret ballot, as an essential preparatory step for the planned special congress.

Whatever changes in the top leadership are about to be made, if any, remain for the committee to decide. Some of the grass-roots demands even name four members who, along with regional secretaries and other officials, are seen as the opponents of reform .

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