Polish reforms may be followed by fresh troubles

The euphoria surrounding the most democratic communist congress ever held in the East bloc is likely to dissipate this week as Poland faces some hard economic decisions.

The "new look" leadership that came to power on a secret ballot -- unprecedented in communist history -- must come to grips with recurring labor unrest. The labor problems are contributing to a serious slide in the country's already troubled economy.

Industrial output for the half year is already down 12 percent over the same period in 1980, even though over 24 percent more was paid out in wages.

But such gloomy statistics have not been sufficient to curb the threat of strikes in the sensitive Baltic ports and by the state airline.

Workers in the Baltic ports are insisting on a charter based on big demands for bonuses of leave and pay once they have worked 15 years. The government has already said the demands are utterly unrealistic.

LOT, the state airline, is threatening to strike Thursday if the government continues to reject employees' demands to elect their own director, which it almost certainly will.

The Baltic ports and the state airline are both sectors the armed forces could operate if necessary.

During a period of acute tension earlier this year, the Polish parliament gave Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski powers to call a state of emergency should the independent labor union, Solidarity, go through with a threat to call a general strike.

Last summer, when the coast was hobbled by strikes, the Polish leadership excluded the use of troops even to keep essential services going.

But today the situation is far more serious. Moreover, the Warsaw Pact allies have been given further pointed reminders here this past week over their unabated "anxieties" over Poland.

General Jaruzelski might well invoke his powers at least to order an American-style cooling-off period to keep the ports working and the planes flying if last-minute efforts to get threatened stoppages called off should fail.

The Polish Communist Party congress still in session in Warsaw is very much aware of the dangers confronting the country.

True, at the party congress in two dramatic days, July 17 and 18, the rank-and-file delegates threw all but four of the old Politburo, the top ruling body, off the Central Committee. Instead, it elected a new committee in which at least half are workers and farmers (mostly private farmers). Politicians are a distinct minority.

But at the same time, the congress seemed also to opt for firmer government along lines advocated by the conservative Stefan Olszowski, one of the few survivors from the top leadership.

While he is not popular with the reformers, few dispute that he is one of the strongest and ablest men around. At this congress it was apparent there is a general acceptance of his insistence that "the government must govern" -- that it should tell the nation the truth and not to pull Poland through its crisis.

It is also abundantly clear that the newly democratically elected leadership will now insist that any partnership of party, the unions, and the public must be conducted within a framework of law and order and common sense without unrealistic demands the government cannot possibly meet.

On the political front, the changes that have overtaken Polish communism this week have been enormous.

This has been an extraordinarym congress in more senses of the word than one and a totally different affair from the hierarchical institutionalized congresses of the Soviet and Soviet bloc parties.

For the first time in 30 years of watching such proceedings this writer saw:

* A Central Committee elected by a secret ballot on plural candidacies nominated by the rank and file. (The Central Committee, in turn, elected a new 15-man Politburo with only seven previously nationally known names and eight organizations. Only party leader stanislaw Kania and two other members of the former Politburo were elected and two ministers in the government are on the Politburo for the first time.)

* The party "dog" wagging the "tail" instead of the other way round, as is customary.

* A party leader elected by the whole congress, instead of by a tiny caucus at the top. As if that in itself was not enough to rock the pillars of the communist pantheon, the election was contested. Mr. Kania polled 1,311 votes, against 568 for his opponent, Kazimierz Barcikowski, a follower of Mr. Kania's middle-ground approach. Hard-liner Stefan olszowski and liberal Mieczyslaw Rakowski were invited to run, but declined.

It was a "respectable" result. Its announcement late Saturday evening provided the most animated moments of the congress to that point. A positively beaming General Jaruzelski, as usual in military uniform, presided.

Mr. Kania sat smiling and relaxed for the first time as far as the television showed.

Then he and his just defeated opponent, Mr. Barcikowski, shook hands and slapped each other on the back amid a torrent of applause. For a moment it looked just a bit like the finale of an American convention victory. Democracy had not proved so frightening after all.

[Reuters reports that Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev congratulated Kania, briefly and curtly, on his reelection. His message, lacking any of the personal compliments usual in such greetings, apparently reflected Soviet misgivings about Kania himself and about the unprecedented democratic ballot by which he was elected.

[Moscow has made no public criticism of the way the Polish Party congress has run, with free elections and a choice of candidates, but the Kremlin was known to have strong doubts about such departures from Leninist "democra tic centralism."]

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.