Still a chance in Poland

The world breathes a deep sigh of relief that, for the moment at least, Poland has been spared the Soviet boot. Leonid Brezhnev's conciliatory speech in Prague and the ending of the Warsaw Pact maneuvers close the latest chapter in Moscow's continuing war of nerves. No one believes the dangers are over. But perhaps there is room for hope in just knowing how reluctant the Russians are to apply force to stem a tide of revolutionary change in Poland. Ten years ago Soviet troops would already have been in the streets of Warsaw. That they are not there today indicates how high Moscow must calculate the political cost.

The valiant Poles now go on with their national "renewal." Throughout the recent crisis they appeared to be less traumatized than many in the West. But that is not to deny an underlying unease. They have been through six months of crises and tension and this is bound to take its toll. Yet a mood of calm, discipline, and compromise on all sides is demanded. The question is whether the moderate forces in Poland will be able to keep the hard-liners in the communist party and government and the radicals in the Solidarity union movement from going too far. The ever-present danger when a period of relative relaxation sets in is that ambitious, irresponsible militants on both sides will produce new conflict and that the resulting chaos will finally break Soviet tolerance.

In this razor-edge situation the nations of the West will want to do whatever is possible to strengthen the Polish forces of moderation. They already are moving to help Poland economically with food aid and a rescheduling of its burdensome debt repayments. Needless to say, aside from immediate humanitarian assistance, Western help should be tied, step by step, to Polish reform of its discredited economic system. There is little point in propping up an outrageously inefficient, mismanaged economy. Many Poles themselves welcome quiet but firm Western pressure on their government and party to keep the ball of genuine reform rolling.

As far as the Soviet Union is concerned, there are as many Western views of its ultimate aims and actions as there are armchair analysts. Many Kremlin watchers are pessimistic, others less so. The truth is, we never know the substance or process of decision-making in the Politburo. But insofar as the Soviet leaders have refrained from intervening in what is an agonizing situation for them, their restraint can be acknowledged and welcomed. The need is not to aggravate Soviet fears by constant public warnings and loud rhetoric against a military invasion of Poland but to try to calm these fears. Surely it would be a sign not of the Soviet Union's weakness but of its growing maturity if it permitted the democratization of Poland to go forward. The Poles, after all, are not asking to be out of the Warsaw Pact -- which protects their western borders with Germany and their territorial acquisitions after World War II -- but to evolve a socialist system that works. That goal, if achieved, would benefit not only the Poles but conceivably strengthen the East European bloc itself.

Perhaps we are whistling in the dark. But so much of extraordinary magnitude has happened thus far -- the changes in Poland's political life and the Soviet hesitation to stop the juggernaut of reform -- as to believe that something powerful is at work here. We dare hope that Poland's spirited struggle for greater freedom and democracy, however many times it confronts a crisis, will go on. If at some point down the road it is tragically squelched, the world will nonetheless know that Poland -- and th e Soviet empire -- will never again be the same.

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