The period of the greatest Soviet threat to Poland is between now and the Polish Communist Party congress to be held by July 20. This is the view of a number of senior Western analysts. Their new concern is based neither on the increased readiness of Soviet troops in and around Poland this month nor on the increasingly harsh Soviet rhetoric.
Instead, the present concern is political. At the end-of-March Polish Central Committee plenum it became clear that party hard-liners will be dumped at the forthcoming party congress, and active democratic reformers -- not grudging reformers of the Kania type -- will be elected to the new Central Committee and ruling Politburo.
This means that the Kremlin faces a hard choice in the next three months:
If it intervenes militarily, it will be faced with far more serious consequences than it was after the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.
But if it fails to halt the decay in Poland now, the Polish party's once authoritarian control of politics and society will be dissolved. The Polish United Workers (Communist) Party would then govern not by fiat, but by the consent of its rank-and-file members and the Solidarity mass movement.
Such a development is anathema to the Russians, both for the pluralist precedent it would set for other Eastern European countries and for the eventual impact this example might have on those Soviet republics bordering on Poland, the Ukraine and Lithuania.
"In Poland you have a series of heresies," notes one Western diplomat in describing the Soviet view, "private agriculture, the role of the church, then Solidarity, and later other groups like student organizations. There's an escalation of heresies. The most dangerous heresy is not Solidarity, but the party itself. We are witnessing a change of structures which must create the utmost concern on the part of the Soviets."
Ominously, it was at exactly this point in the Czechoslovak liberalization of 1968 that Kremlin alarm over developments triggered the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. In May 1968 the Czechoslovak Central Committee set the date for the next party congress for Sept. 9 --hence. In June and July 1968 the Czechoslovak district and regional party conferences elected congress delegates (as local Polish party chapters are doing now) who were 80 percent in favor of liberalization.
In early August 1968 the draft Czechoslovak party statute was published, allowing revolutionary secret elections for party posts with multiple candidates , guaranteeing the right to minority views within the party, and urging grass-roots consultations. (The March 1981 Polish plenum similarly approved unlimited candidates for offices and a secret ballot for half of the party congress delegates; and in a portent of things to come, at least one key regional party secretary, Tadeusz Fiszbach, went right back to his Gdansk shipyard constituents and discussed all the Central Committee issues with them.)
Two weeks before the scheduled Czechoslovak party congress, on Aug. 21, 1968, the Red Army occupied Czechoslovakia, blocked the official congress and renovation of the party, and eventually restored hard-line Czechs and Slovaks to the party leadership.
The extent to which the March 1981 Polish Central Committee plenum similarly disturbs the Kremlin today may be gauged by the reported Soviet political intervention to keep Polish hard-liners from being dropped from the Politburo at the plenum -- and also in the unprecedented criticism of the Polish Communist Party that has now appeared in Pravda and Izvestia three days in a row.
The disincentives to a 1981 repeat of the 1968 Soviet invasion of an ally of course remain much stronger in Poland than they were in Czechoslovakia. This time the United States and Western Europe have warned repeatedly that an invasion would finish off what is left of East-West detente and start a new arms race. (In 1968, by contrast, a US president preoccupied with Vietnam and domestic antiwar demonstrations cared little about Czechoslovakia and so signaled the Russians.) In 1981 a Soviet invasion of an Eastern European ally would also forfeit Soviet chances of wooing Western Europe away from the US and would burden Moscow with support of the catastrophic Polish economy and repayment of Poland's $27 billion hard-currency debts.
Most importantly, perhaps, at a time when 80-90,000 Soviet troops are tied down in a counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, a Soviet invasion of Poland would require another million troops for an extended occupation of Poland. Given the likely Polish sabotage of military lines of communication, such an occupation would weaken rather than strengthen the whole Soviet military alliance and Soviet security. It could also risk severe demoralization among Ukrainian and possibly even Russian occupation forces.
In the dangerous next three months, however, even these predictable consequences might come to seem less of a cost to the Russians than the real democratization of the Communist Party in Moscow's largest, most strategic, and most populous ally.
Until now the Kremlin has been able to avoid the ultimate decision of whether to invade Poland. Until this month it apparently pinned its hopes on the Polish hard-liners' tactics of provoking Solidarity to a militant reaction that would rally the Polish security forces and Army to suppress "chaos" and Solidarity. That attempt was made at Bydgoszcz at the end of March, at a time when both leading moderates, party chief Stanislaw Kania and Premier Wojciech Jaruzelski, were out of Warsaw.
The attempt backfired. It failed because of the extraordinary discipline of Solidarity and the fierce determination of Kania and Jaruzelski to avoid bloodshed. In the end, in fact, it produced just the opposite effect of that intended; it goaded the party moderates into finally setting the date of the party congress, approving the controversial secret party ballots, and possibly even wresting censorship control away from hard-liner Stefan Olszowski.
The total failure of the Bydgoszcz attempt means that hard-line Poles and Russians can no longer hope to orchestrate a gradual confrontation to their advantage; in any confrontation lasting more than a day the Polish workers would again barricade themselves in their factories and compel the Russians to seize the hundreds of factories by force, one by one.
What this implies is that the Russians will either have to mount a sudden overnight occupation (on the pattern of Czechoslovakia in 1968) to preempt the Polish workers, or else tolerate Poland's swiftly moving liberalization.