Warsaw traffic jam: paving the way for a compromise?

Both sides in the confrontation that brought Warsaw traffic to a standstill Monday seem to be counting on the standoff to "let off steam." But there are ominous signs in the background. The government faces an almost impossible task in alleviating, let alone resolving, the food crisis.

At the same time the militants in solidarity, some of them pushing for a more vigorous confrontation, appear to be gaining influence among the union rank and file. And the union has said it will not remove its vehicles from Warsaw until after a two-hour warning strike this morning.

The first talks between Vice-Premier Mieczyslaw Rakowski and Solidarity's Lech Walesa adjourned without reaching a compromise. The government did pledge to reply at a meeting Thursday to seven demands presented by the union.

Meanwhile, as in previous conflicts here, the main issue has been overshadowed by secondary considerations. This time it was the route for Monday's food protest convoy.

This dispute may have been either's a misunderstanding between two parties who seem always ready to misread each other's intentions or a last-minute police decision.

solidarity alleged it was authorized to traverse a throughway taking it past Communist Party headquarters and the Council of Ministers' building, where the talks were under way. City authorities claim Solidarity merely informed them of its intentions.

As the protest motorcade began, a column of taxis and private cars was allowed to take the intended route, but police closed it to heavier vehicles and buses. The resultant standstill blocked the tram routes, and the city center remained at a standstill at time of writing Tuesday afternoon.

The authorities were making no move to untangle the snarl. The government clearly was hoping that, left to itself, this massive show of popular anger over the food situation would serve as a safety valve, and that -- once it is rounded off by today's strike -- the talks can proceed in an atmosphere more conducive to compromise.

The real issue remains food shortages the government clearly is at its wits' end to ease.

Moreover, it obviously has not convinced ordinary Poles that it is coming to grips with attendant evils such as the black marketeering and speculation in food and other commodities that have mushroomed recently.

It made a start on a promised crackdown on such speculation when police and troops moved on a notorious market in the Praga district of Warsaw, where speculators were charging 500 to 600 zlotys ($16 to $19) for a half-pound of coffee.

The authorities themselves are not without blame. I watched two men in a government hard-currency store each buy 20 cartons of American cigarettes, reducing the stock by half, while other customers waited. Asked why she allowed it, the salesgirl replied: "They have hard currency, I cannot refuse."

Solidarity, too, has its problems. For some time there have been signs that the union is losing control over its more militant branches and members.

Only a week ago, the moderate Mr. Walesa was saying the food marches in other cities were bringing no results and the union was not planning any nationwide action. Solidarity, he said, should concentrate on how to correct the food situation and counteract waste and losses due either to maldsitribution or profiteers.

The union is currently engaged in countrywide preparation for its first national congress next month. Reports from many meetings make clear it is often the militants who are running the show at the local level.

* Some have adopted "better no rations at all" resolutions urging members not to use the cards for the reduced August meat quota.

* Others press Solidarity's professed egalitarianism to the point of condemning extra rations for miners and steelworkers as a government maneuver "to divide society."

* Strongly political trends have emerged in the speeches of many local leaders, particularly over the pending union and self-government bill, which is almost certain to spark another major test of strength.

Already, a big row over the election of a director is going on in one of the country's main heavy engineering works, a plant vital to Poland's cooperation in COMECON, the East-bloc trading community.

The Warsaw branch of Solidarity has joined the fray. IT calls the bill "antiunionist" because it does not meet the union claim to full power for the workers' and employees' councils to manage their enterprises and the right to "hire and fire" directors.

In this militant pre-congress mood, it is not surprising that Mr. Walesa had to take a stand in the dispute about the demonstration's route and fall in with the idea of keeping up the traffic blockade till today's strike.

His own position as national head of Solidarity is not entirely secure, even though he towers above his co-leaders. Several times this year he headed to union away from rash decisions by threatening to resign.

More recently, he was elected chairman of the Gdansk Regional Solidarity. He won with 366 votes: His principal militant rival polled 134 -- something that could not have happened six months ago.

More significant in the Praga action than the confiscation of goods is the participation of troops. It was the first time an Army unit had been called out since the start of the crisis last summer.

Parliament already had granted Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski emergency powers if he needed them. The recent addition of three of his senior Army colleagues to his Cabinet suggested firmer, military-type action was likely.

Neither Solidarity nor ordinary Poles have reacted adversely to this use of troops. Most would like to see the Army used more to speed the movement of supplies.

Solidarity has offered the government its cooperation in this effort, and Poles approve that, too. What, in fact, is wanted most of all in Poland just now is some mutual trust and confidence between the two.

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