All quiet on Moscow's western front?

Is all now quiet on Moscow's western front? Has martial law in Poland effectively ended all prospects of change within the ''socialist commonwealth?''

General Jaruzelski has battened down the hatches, but the future - not just for Poland but for the whole Soviet empire - is full of risk and uncertainty.

The emergence of Poland's Solidarity movement threatened to create a model of self-rule - in politics no less than in economics - for all Eastern Europe and even the Soviet Union. Solidarity, rather unwisely, endeavored to promote change outside as well as within Poland.

Its first national congress, in September 1981, greeted those workers throughout Eastern Europe and the USSR ''who have resolved to enter the difficult road of struggle for a free union movement.''

What was Moscow's response? The Kremlin watched and waited for conditions in which its interests could be reestablished without active intervention by Soviet forces. The delay was telling.

East Germany's anti-Soviet revolt in 1953 was crushed by Soviet tanks in days; Hungary's, in 1956, in weeks. In both cases there was considerable bloodshed as Soviet forces smashed rioters armed with stones and Molotov cocktails.

By contrast, Czechoslovakia's 1968 experiment in ''socialism with a human face'' endured eight months before it was smothered - with little bloodshed - by invasion forces from the USSR and four other Warsaw Pact nations.

Solidarity's upsurge, however, lasted twice as long - 16 months (August 1980 to December 1981) before it was throttled by local security forces instead of foreign troops, but again with little bloodshed.

The pattern seems clear: each challenge to Soviet rule from 1953 to 1981 endured longer than its antecedent, while active Soviet participation and blood-letting diminished after 1956. The USSR has become more cautious, as have the East Europeans (at least by comparison with 1953 and 1956). Maintenance of Soviet-style institutions has been left more and more to indigenous forces.

As of early 1982, Moscow's tactic of relying upon Jaruzelski and other friends in Poland seems to have ''worked.'' Solidarity's political activities have been drastically curtailed. If the movement is revived, Poland's communist rulers want it limited to narrow trade union functions.

Solidarity's appeal to other East Europeans has been undermined by the apparent linkage between ''self-rule'' and economic chaos. Poland's economic woes derive from the policies adopted by Edward Gierek and others before the Solidarity era, but these troubles have been aggravated by work stoppages and slowdowns, both before and after last December's crackdown.

For the Kremlin, however, the light at the end of the tunnel is quite dim, if seen at all.

Poland's economy is still in shambles. Unless its workers feel like working, unless they feel some enthusiasm for the prevailing system, the country will languish, creating many problems for other members of COMECON (the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance) as well as Western creditors.

Many Poles are still defiant. In Poland the people's fighting spirit - buttressed by tradition, the Roman Catholic Church (at home and abroad), and outside forces - may prove much harder to extinguish than elsewhere; for instance, Czechoslovakia.

Even if Jaruzelski succeeds in imposing order, his rule presents Moscow with two problems. First, the Kremlin's lack of direct involvement deepens its dependency upon a local satrapy to uphold Soviet interests. Second, the role of the military and internal security forces in this new ''Polish model'' underscores the weaknesses of the Communist Party. It presents the Kremlin with an unwelcome precedent for succession regimes elsewhere in Eastern Europe and the USSR. Just as military dictatorships have flourished in the third world - a desperate response to political and economic turmoil - will they become the wave of the future in communist societies as well? The marshals have usually played a secure second fiddle to civilian leaders in the USSR and other communist countries; will these roles be alternated if not reversed?

The spillover effects of Polish-style repression could be as devastating to the Soviet way of empire as the movement for self-rule, repressed but not extinguished. For Moscow, it's still close to a no-win game.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to All quiet on Moscow's western front?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today