Poland's pre-Solidarity prime minister says he will fight charges blaming him for the 1980 crisis. His defense could be more embarrassing for the present government than a trial of leading members of the opposition who face charges of having plotted against the state.
This new turn on Poland's unsettled political scene surfaced with the announcement last week that former Premier Piotr Jaroszewicz and his principal deputy and planner, Tadeusz Wrzaszczyk, are to appear before the so-called Tribunal of State for their alleged mishandling of the economy in the late 1970 s.
He and his former deputy are the first scapegoats for what has been condemned as the misleading ''propaganda of success'' during the 1970s.
For some years workers' pay packets expanded, while Poland overinvested and ran up massive Western debts.
Former Communist Party chief Edward Gierek and many close associates had already been charged with having concealed this economic march to ruin from parliament and public until the lid blew off amid the strikes in the summer of 1980.
But a preliminary judgment by a party commission assessing the personal responsibility of senior officials initially condemned the whole leadership, i.e., the Politburo, to which Jaroszewicz belonged.
It said the Politburo had underestimated the social and political tensions that mushroomed in the wake of workers' protests about soaring prices and other worsening living conditions since 1976.
Mr. Gierek, Mr. Jaroszewicz, and others were expelled from the party.
Then their successors seemed to realize that putting a party leader on trial - especially one as close as Gierek had been to the Soviet leadership under Leonid Brezhnev - for ''political'' errors of such magnitude would further damage a party already in grave disarray.
Gierek was spared by the investigating commission's later terms of reference, which focused on ''constitutional'' responsibility.
That meant that, although he had been the head of a party wielding decisive power, he was exempt since he did not hold a state post or ministerial rank in government.
Under Solidarity's pressure to bring the guilty men to account, there was a widespread purge in the lower echelons of government. Some junior ministers and other officials were tried and sentenced on corruption charges.
But Mr. Jaroszewicz and his deputy will be the first top members of the Gierek team to be called to open account.
The whole affair is largely symbolic, since the policies for which these two are to be arraigned were pursued before the tribunal was set up in 1982. Retroactive penalties are excluded, unless the tribunal states grounds for criminal proceedings.
This seems unlikely. It might assuage public opinion, but considering the prevailing apathy and resignation, there seems little need of such a gesture.
Even within its legal limits, the tribunal's hearings are likely to prove more embarrassing to the present authorities than any action they may decide to take against the two Solidarity groups detained and then imprisoned since the imposition of martial law in December 1982.
One group includes four leading members of the former workers' Self-Defense Committee (KOR); the other, seven former top union activists.
For both groups, the prosecution's case has been ready for some time. Yet no move is being made to bring them into court. Almost a year's efforts to persuade the accused to accept temporary emigration have elicited no response.
Should trials finally be held and result in convictions (as they must), the authorities are likely to try to defuse things with mild sentences, of which the greater part would be deemed already served.
The questions of ''power and responsibility'' centering on Jaroszewicz will be a much bigger issue. And they would have uncomfortable significance for other Communist parties in Europe.
The former premier served notice - in a letter to all members of parliament before they voted to refer his case to the tribunal - that he will insist that the 1980 crisis was a result of world economic recession as well as his own and his colleagues' ''mistakes.'' Furthermore, he said, all the principals of the Gierek period were involved.
The charges leveled at him, he says, ''ignore the fact that in Poland, as in all other Communist countries, political and government decisions and responsibility for them are shared.''
One wonders if other Communist authorities would deny the premise.
In their dilemmas over the 1980 breakdown the Poles seem to be caught between two stools: (1) the wish to be seen demonstrating that officials can be held accountable for mistakes, and (2) the necessity of doing so without seeming to put the system per se on trial.
On the second count, the Warsaw government - and without doubt its allies - has no option but to hope this unique process involving Jaroszewicz can be conducted as speedily and circumspectly as possible.
But Jaroszewicz's letter to MPs suggests it may be difficult, at least until he has had his say.