The special congress of the Polish Communist Part has been a turbulent 10 months in the making -- months fraught with domestic infighting and opposition from the Soviet Union and its other allies.
But its opening here Tuesday is the one certainty of the current situation. What the congress can accomplish remains largely a matter of hope.
It is being called an "extraordinary" or "emergency" congress. It is both. And urgent -- of greater urgency now than last September, when it was proposed.
This is underlined by the worker unrest that erupted in two major areas on the eve of the congress. These latest work stoppages recall the bitterness of last August's strikes and serve as a reminder that, despite three months of relative industrial peace, the old tensions and their causes have yet to be removed.
At this writing, strenuous efforts are being made to avert major strike threats looming over the Baltic ports and the state-owned airline; and of a local transport stoppage at Bydgoszcz, the still-restless scene of police violence against union activists in March.
Some 45,000 dockers and other port workers put down their tools for an hour Wednesday as a token of action they will take later in the month if their claims are not heeded.
The airline, LOT, followed suit with a four- hour standstill Thursday morning that grounded all domestic aircraft. It was the first civil aviation strike in communist East Europe.
[Reuters reports that seven international flights were delayed.]
The threatened, longer stoppage at the ports is more serious, not only for the obvious economic reasons but also because the workers there have a solid case and good reason to challenge the government's good faith.
The trouble at LOT is over official refusal to accept a director nominated by employees from existing managerial-commercial staff. The government is determined to install a military man as chief of the airline's operations.
Like other branches of Poland's economy, LOT's fortunes are at such low ebb that the staff insists it needs a commercial manager if it is to avert a breakdown.
The issue seems to be bogged down in dispute over the interpretation of a projected law on self-government in state enterprises. It would give a council of employees (elected by secret ballot) a considerable voice in management and put comprehensive controls on the director's obligatory accountability to it.
His appointment would be dependent on the employees' consent, but they apparently will not have the right to nominate and elect him. (This, in fact, would match the practice established in much more extensively "liberalized" Yugoslavia.)
But given the crisis situation under which it has existed for the past year -- and the persistent Soviet sensitivity about the security of Warsaw Pact communications in and through Poland -- the government's reservations arepredictable enough.
A prolonged stoppage at the ports would have incalculably catastrophic effects for an economy with only the most minuscule of margins between itself and collapse.
Daily, the papers record further deterioration in supplies of food and raw materials. Even though the miners are making valiant efforts to raise their daily output, the industry is being hampered now by a shortage of wagons and repeated railroad failure to speed the empties back to the pits.
The dockworkers' decision was a despairing response to a 10-year delay in completing a harbor workers' charter that was to improve pay and conditions. It was promised after their protest riots of December 1970.
For the government it is just another "Catch-22" situation. Last August's strike settlements brought big pay hikes. But working conditions have not changed much. The changes would require expenditures for which funds simply do not exist.
Much of the political aspect of the crisis has been eased, if not solved. Government and party leadership, for example, are exposed to public scrutiny as never before, both through the larger role of parliament and the increased candor of the news media.
The press is lively, informative, and remarkably uncensored, despite some personnel changes and nuances of discretion in response to Soviet charges that it was being allowed to get entirely out of hand.
Reforms enacted thus far will be ratified by next week's congress. They include a broad democratization of the party itself.
This will be a moderate, middle course rejecting reformist and dogmatic extremes alike but destined to introduce some significant changes to make the leadership -- the Politburo included -- uniquely responsive to rank and file opinion and control.
All this looks assured. Increasingly, the economic front presents the most acute of all Poland's problems.
They are aggravated now not only by the severe shortages in all areas where the government hopes to set new planning and management in motion, but also by somewhat disturbing signs of division within its essential partner, Solidarity.
Militants in the leadership are posing a serious challenge to Lech Walesa, the man who led the workers through the August confrontation with the regime and on to establishment of the union.
"The government has to govern and we have to give it time and help it to govern," he has said many times recently. "If we don't, Solidarity can lose everything it has won."
The radicals call him "soft," accuse him of "joining" the government, and argue that only toughness makes the regime respect and heed the union.
Four candidates have set themselves against him at next week's election of chairman of the Gdansk region in the union's national committee. It will be an important test because Walesa has declined to "play safe" and seek separate election as a delegate to Solidarity's national congress next month.
He is expected to win the Gdansk ballot. This would automatically mandate him for the congress as well. But, should he lose, it would be a significant blow -- for Solidarity and the government, and the country as w ell.