How Communist hard-liners put a grinch in Poles' Christmas

There have been plenty of Christmas trees on sale here for the past few days . . . but not much else.

The rationed staples such as meat, and extra sugar, seem adequate. The herring and carp that are seasonal ''musts'' for Poles have been promised, but they will become available only later this week.

Almost everything else is in the usual short supply.

''The fight for goods in the big stores is terrible,'' says one Pole. In the city's central emporium there are police patrols, ''just in case'' of trouble. There are long lines for mechanical Czech and East German toys and for the kilogram of lemons and grapefruit permitted by the children's ration cards.

There is, in fact, not much evidence of a ''happy Christmas'' - even with the Polish disposition to make the best of things and leave cares for the morrow.

The suspension of martial law has proved to be a letdown for the nation. Probably there was too much euphoria at the start of the month. People assumed too quickly that the emergency would be lifted altogether, not merely reduced. The early government statements had encouraged that assumption.

But early in December there were two Communist Party meetings that were largely overlooked but whose significance is now becoming apparent.

At one, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski met with the regional party secretaries. The other was a long and less than equable session of the Politburo at which the hard-line members seem to have checked the whole ''normalization'' process.

The news media quickly reflected the change. An official statement that in a year of martial law almost 700 underground groups were broken up was followed by a flurry of reports revealing continued opposition activity.

The reports, apparently intended to counterbalance any impression of ''confidence'' conveyed by the first statement, included the arrest of 10 members of a so-called ''regional resistance group'' at the coastal industrial town of Slupsk; the jailing of eight members of a ''Solidarity resistance committee'' at the city-port of Szczecin; the apprehension of the suspected leader of the shipyard strike there in the first days of martial law. Pro-Solidarity print shops were uncovered by the police in Opole, Gdansk, and here in Warsaw.

The authorities seemed to be using all this to justify a much more limited curtailment of military rule than most Poles expected. Justice Minister Sylwester Zawadski, in a Polityka interview, blamed the Solidarity underground.

''All the bolder steps taken by the authorities previously to lessen the rigors of martial law were read as a sign of weakness,'' Zawadski said. ''But for the events (demonstrations) of May and August we would have been much nearer full elimination of martial law.''

But there have been many indications that continued in-fighting within the party apparatus is the real cause of the sharp ''teeth'' fitted into the legislation passed Saturday to giving the government special powers. These powers - including the ability to reimpose martial law regionally or over the country as a whole - apply to the period between martial law's scheduled ''suspension'' Dec. 31 and its still-promised but uncertain ultimate lifting.

At Gdansk last week, the authorities did exactly what everyone knew they would: prevent Lech Walesa's planned address to shipyard workers on the Dec. 16 anniversary of the 1970 food riots and shootings. But they neither detained nor arrested him in a formal sense. They merely drove him around and around the city from midday until well into the evening.

They wanted no showdown. Moreover, eyewitnesses testify that while security forces were in the city and around the shipyard in massive strength, they clearly were under strict orders to avoid confrontation or in any way provoke the kind of violence that erupted on other sensitive Solidarity occasions earlier in the year.

''It was a formidable reminder by the authorities that they have the power and are ready to use it, but - this time - only as a last resort,'' an eyewitness commented. In the event there were only two minor incidents and each quickly petered out.

In a statement to the press the next day, Mr. Walesa could only repeat his determined ''we shall win'' theme and reaffirm his commitment to open and democratic struggle for workers' rights and for unions of a kind he does not see being formed under the new law.

He remains a symbol for many. But increasingly Mr. Walesa's hope seems forlorn, unless he should one day change his mind about working in one of the new unions himself, which now would appear unlikely. Like General Jaruzelski, he has his own ''hard-liners,'' the radical internees, to reckon with.

Internment as a policy will cease, in theory, to exist Dec. 31. Summary procedures under martial law are to be substantially reduced, as are the powers of military courts to deal with civilians.

But despite earlier official statements, not ''all'' of the remaining 200 internees are to be freed here and now. Justice Minister Zawadski has confirmed that ''a relatively small group'' of them can expect to be placed under arrest and charged with offenses against the state.

That will keep the more extreme element of the old Solidarity leadership out of circulation for longer than a mere car ride. Walesa seems out of sympathy with them as he often was before, but he stands firm on the issue of their release.

The ''teeth'' aimed at individuals and individual freedoms may not affect a great many people. But they evoked a degree of criticism in Parliament, and people at large view them with distaste. Even from the government's point of view they appear unnecessary when the Solidarity underground is so clearly flagging.

They sparked the Roman Catholic Church's most uncompromising statement of recent months. The government, said the primate and bishops in a letter to Parliament Dec. 16, only harmed its own credibility by introducing ''repressive'' measures while it was talking about relaxation. That statement seemed to reflect the general public mood exactly.

Suspending martial law is seen as having its merits, if mostly in the freeing of some 5,000 to 6,000 persons. Beyond that, Jaruzelski has had to pay heed to the hard-line faction that is always barking at his heels and obviously has a good measure of Soviet approval.

He still talks of ''complete normalization'' next year. The private word is ''before the Pope's visit.''

But delaying normalization - and at least the start of clemency for martial-law prison sentences - will do more than put that visit in question. It will also delay any beginning of credibility for Jaruzelski's government and his ''patriotic front.''

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