Polish tightrope

The West looks for glimmers of hope in the Polish situation. There are those who may see a faint one in General Jaruzelski's promise to lift some martial law restrictions by the end of February if the present calmer situation continues. Or in the Polish parliament's call on the government to return the country to full civilian rule as soon as possible.But these are vague generalities that will disappoint all who hoped for quick and decisive signs of early relaxation. It appears that martial law will continue for some time as efforts are made to firm up the government's control and stabilize the shattered economy.

The dilemma for the military regime remains, however. The Polish people have had a heady dose of freedom in terms of the old communist system. This was not a revolution by a handful of labor agitators and intellectuals; it was a grass-roots rebellion led by the mass of workers and joined by all except those who stood to lose their power and privileges. To turn the clock back on such a movement is impossible. General Jaruzelski knows that he will not be able to extract the kind of performance - and sacrifice - from Poles that will be needed to put the economy on its feet unless there is a new social compact with them. He will have to give them a measure of the reforms they won and a reason to want to trust a government that has so totally earned their distrust.

This is why it is disappointing that General Jaruzelski did not offer more in his first post-martial law speech to the Polish Sejm. He unveiled no specific plans for reform of the economy, for instance, which would invite popular support. He made no gesture on the demeaning martial-law requirement under which Poles have to sign loyalty oaths at their place of work. His speech and the subsequent parliamentary debate were not broadcast live - a censorship that must gall Poles who had experienced such a buoyant opening up of the press. There was little, in short, to give Poles cause for hope.

To judge General Jaruzelski's actions at this point nonetheless is difficult. The problem is that the West still knows so little about what is going on, and exaggerated reports by all sides only add to the confusion. Certainly there are signs of a continuing struggle between moderates and hardliners within the weakened communist party; some observers believe Jaruzelski is fighting for his political life against orthodox, Soviet-backed Polish leaders who are determined to restore the old order. Even the general's speech to the Sejm, in which he gave the minimum possible, seems to reflect that intrarparty conflict. Was he constrained from being more accommodating because of the need to fend off the hardliners and keep the Kremlin at bay?

At this juncture the West can only wait and see. To put the best light on things, General Jaruzelski is a reform-minded patriot who still wants to liberalize the country but, to accomplish this, requires a period of stability and calm in which the changes can be made quietly, without the glare of international publicity. In fairness, it ought to be noted that some restrictions already have been eased and martial law has not proved overly harsh; conditions in the detention camps, for instance, are not as repressive as some have made out. The fact that General Jaruzelski sought parliamentary approval for the military clampdown, however pro forma, says something about his concern for legality. The Roman Catholic Church, for its part, which has spoken out forcefully against martial law, is nonetheless reported to be somewhat impatient with the entrenched positions of detained Solidarity leaders as well.

The great need remains that for a social dialogue. The question is: will the military regime end the uncertainty that now besets its course and create the conditions in which Solidarity - and the overwhelming majority of Poles who support it - find it acceptable to negotiate? A mere appeal to patriotism and nationalism is not enough.

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