When Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski visited Paris last year, he was forced to enter the 'Elys'ee Palace through the back door. When he visited Rome this week, he entered the Quirinal Palace and the Vatican through the front door. Poland's relations with the West are improving - at least at first glance. But below the surface, significant tensions remain. Despite General Jaruzelski's polite reception in Rome and his confirmation that Pope John Paul II would make his third visit to his homeland in June, the Vatican refuses to open diplomatic relations and the United States continues its economic sanctions.
Most of the problems date from the 1981 imposition of martial law and the subsequent banning of the independent trade union Solidarity. Western countries tried to punish Warsaw by limiting diplomatic contacts with Poland. The US went further, raising tariffs on Polish imports and cutting off Export-Import Bank credits.
These sanctions, the Poles claim, have cost them $15 billion. Though Western diplomats say that figure is wildly exaggerated, the Polish economy is clearly in shambles. Deputy Finance Minister Andrzej Dorosz admitted last month that the country cannot meet its interest payments on its foreign debt, which totals some $35 billion. His solution: increased Western credits.
To facilitate such aid, the Jaruzelski regime released almost all political prisoners last September. That move led opposition and Roman Catholic Church figures to join in the call for the repeal of US sanctions. Lech Walesa, head of the banned Solidarity trade union and Nobel Peace Prize winner, wrote President Reagan a personal letter urging him to change US policy.
In the view of Mr. Walesa's advisers, the sanctions have served as a convenient alibi for Warsaw's economic failures. Renewed credits, the advisers add, are equally important - although they should be accompanied by conditions that would prevent the government from squandering them, as the regime did in the 1970s.
Western response is mixed. In addition to Jaruzelski's trip to Paris, Poland last year reentered the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. ``But nothing came of these meetings,'' complained a Jaruzelski aide.
Jaruzelski reaped more obvious political benefits from his visit to Italy. His 70-minute audience with the Pope, an immensely revered figure in his homeland, represents a potent public relations coup. In the glare of television lights, the Polish leader offered the Pope a gift of Chopin recordings and received in return a book of handsome reproductions of the restored Sistine Chapel.
Jaruzelski would have liked more from the Holy See. In exchange for officially recognizing the judicial status of the church in Poland and increasing its legal abilities to publish, he asked for the Vatican to open diplomatic relations. The Pope refused. The church is ``afraid of appearing too close to us,'' lamented the Jaruzelski aide.
Relations with the US are also cool. Since the amnesty of political prisoners, the diplomats say there has been a debate in Washington. Some in the State Department favor warmer ties. But AFL-CIO union leaders and conservative hard-liners within the Reagan administration insist that Poland first make more progress toward ``national reconciliation'' and market-oriented reform.
``What a strange alliance,'' marveled a Western diplomat in Warsaw, ``uniting liberal union leaders and right-wing conservatives.''
The writer was recently on assignment in Poland