Poland has squeezed through its most tense and dangerous two-week period since its current crisis was launched in the Baltic ports last summer. For the moment, at least, a head-on confrontation between the Communist regime and the 10-million strong independent union, Solidarity, has been sidestepped.
After seven hours of talks with the government March 30, Solidarity leader Lech Walesa announced the threatened March 31 general strike, which would have accelerated possible economic collapse and perhaps triggered some form of Soviet intervention, had been called off. The union-government compromise still has to be approved by Solidarity's National Consultative Commission due to meet March 31.
But the power struggle within the Polish Communist Party itself clearly remained unresolved. The reformist faction led by Communist Party First Secretary Stanislaw Kania still has not managed to push through the changes in the top leadership which it had hoped to achieve during Sunday's and Monday's 18 -hour Central Committee session. Instead, the 15-man Politburo was reaffirmed in office.
But the public clamor for change did push two important items through the Central Committee: first, immediate and more democratic elections for party officials at all levels; second, the setting of a specific date (not later than July 20) for the convening of a special party congress which the reformers hope will produce major changes in the party hierarchy.
During the past few tense days, the public at large has continued to support Solidarity, which had threatened the general strike in protest at harsh police action against activists at Bydgoszcz March 19.
But there were widespread fears throughout the country. People have been worrying not only about the economic consequences at a time when food shortages are at their worst in many austere years, but also the possibility of disorders which could prompt Russian intervention.
There has been a constant reminder of this possibility these past two weeks. Apart from the Soviet divisions permanently based in this country, Russian and Polish troops are still engaged in Warsaw Pact spring exercises in Poland and in combined operations with East German and Czechoslovak forces operating on their own territory close to this country's borders. At the same time, Polish and East German seaborne forces have been simulating landings on the Baltic coast.
Twice previously -- in the price riots of 1976 and again during last year's strikes --today's Prime Minister, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, who was then defense minister, refused to allow Polish soldiers to be involved. It is unlikely he would reverse that decision now or allow troops to be used, should the need arise, for any other purpose than keeping vital installations running.
But there is always the danger of unforeseen incidents, or that an economic breakdown flowing from a national strike would create such acute food shortages that social unrest might follow. If such developments threatened the regime itself, there is little doubt the Russians would move.
The party leadership, in fact, had already indicated during an earlier crisis at the start of December that if "socialism in Poland was in danger," it would not hesitate to turn to its Warsaw Pact allies for assistance.
At the Sunday-Monday plenum of the party Central Committee, the Politburo report stated that a general strike would "put our state and Poland's statehood itself to the ultimate test." The country, it added, had no reserves to survive such a catastrophe.
An economic report indicated a decline throughout industry, with current economic performance disastrously below the same period in 1980. Earlier it had been stated that, if the strike came about, Poland's food resources would last no longer than 12 days.
Meanwhile, the reform vs. conservatism struggle for Poland's Communist Party is not over. For the time being an entrenched party apparatus has proved strong enough to stall the reformers' main challenge.
The party reformers went into the latest Central Committee session confident of swinging the balance in the Politburo decisively in their favor by unseating at least three of its hard-line members. Their expectations were disappointed. Instead, the 15-member top party body remains unchanged with a "carry on" vote of confidence from the Central Committee.
The latter consists of 143 full members and 108 deputies. A majority of at the least 2 to 1 are orthodox apparatchiks concerned with the status quo and the hold on power that goes with it.
The explanation of what finally happened after 18 hours of often bitterly contentious debate looks in part to be that the Russians --now at a new peak of uneasiness on Poland --might have been still further angered by a major shake-up in the party's leadership. Especially a shake-up removing members with ideologically restrictive ideas of reform and therefore more acceptable to the Russians.
There had also to be some concessions to the reformers and the impatient rank and file. One was the decision on immediate elections of new party officials at all levels and of delegates for the extraordinary congress. And, under more democratic conditions.
Ordinary members will be able to nominate for office as many candidates as they wish, with secret balloting and independent supervision of election meetings. These have always been stage-managed by the local party secretary, who had only to produce the name of "a good comrade" to secure his adoption as the sole candidate.
The grass-roots pressures also proved strong enough to compel the committee to set a date at last for the special party congress. The elections -- for party bodies and for delegates -- must be completed, the resolution said, by the end of June for a congress not later than July 20.