Poland is facing its most dangerous confrontation since the mass strikes of last year's "Baltic August." If the government-Solidarity talks set to open here today fail, the outcome is likely to be renewed nationwide strikes sweeping Poland toward economic collapse and probably civil disorder.
The Solidarity union is already threatening to call such strikes. Indeed, there seems only a frail and narrow margin of maneuver left.
Many Poles seem resigned to a downward spiral. But strangely ambivalent attitudes were evident amid the spectacular action in which Solidarity brought traffic in the center of the capital to a standstill for 48 hours as well as halting most work throughout the city for two more hours Wednesday morning.
As the long lines of trams and trucks, idled since Monday on the main boulevard, Marszalkowska, finally began moving, ordinary Poles on the street apprehensively pondered one question: what now?
Undoubtedly, there were many who, from the start, viewed the protest as a pointless exercise. But a majority was clearly not againstm it even if this time they were not demonstratively in favor of it. Many supported it with a kind of baffled desperation that it might yield some small result.
More than anything, people seemed to feel there was no other way to give expression to feelings so long pent up. They took advantage of the opportunity to bring it home to the authorities.
At the same time, there was evidence of ample support for Solidarity from its big affiliates around the country. From the shipyard in Solidarity leader Lech Walesa's home base at Gdansk and from another big industrial center, Wroclaw, came warnings that action would be taken should the government-union talks in Warsaw fail.
The government, meanwhile, was trying hard to defuse the situation. It maintained an extremely low security profile throughout the Warsaw traffic blockade. And it announced creation of two task forces, each headed by a vice-premier, with full powers to act on the most acute problems of the crisis.
One task force is to check on all production, to control market supplies, curb the export of consumer goods where necessary, and supervise the rationing and distribution of goods, especially food.
The other -- linked with similar groups in every region and big town -- has been ordered to use every available means against the black market and profiteering.
A bill is to be rushed through the next Sejm (parliament) session to arm it with virtual emergency powers and to legislate stiffer penalties for speculators.
Inevitably, people asked why this was not done earlier and why Solidarity has not yet been asked to cooperate in supply and ration controls. Maybe it will be now. But at best there still is the customary reaction to any government move or undertaking -- "We'll wait and see."
Often the union, for its part, does not seem to get its priorities right. Some of its demands in the present talks with the government threaten new difficulties because they include tricky political issues not directly or immediately relevant to the current crisis -- food.
They are hotly contesting draft legislation to go to the Sejm shortly on trade unions and self-government in enterprises, in which they want powers for workers' councils going as far as those achieved by the Yugoslavs after many years of argument. In the light of the increased authority parliament has won, it is not out of the question that the drafts will ultimately be amended closer to the union view.
Solidarity's list of demands includes higher government purchase prices for private farmers. The farmers have, in fact, received substantial increases since April and will undoubtedly need more such inducements to boost food output. But when the government tries to recover the cost of this by raising retail prices in line with market forces, the union resists that, too.
Everything now turns on whether two moderate men, Vice-Premier Mieczyslaw Rakowski and Lech Walesa, can hammer out a new compromise. After a first round on Monday, Rakowski said in a television interview:
"In recent months our relations with Solidarity were assuming a normal character. There were grounds for hope this spirit of partnership would deepen. [It would be] the greatest defeat for Poland if it turned out such partnership is impossible to attain."
That to most Poles would seem to be the most vital question as the anniversary for last August's hopeful government-union a greements comes around.