The removal of the last United States sanctions against Poland turns a page of history, but still leaves the book open on the issue of Poland's efforts to revive its economy. The return of lowered tariffs on Polish goods and of eligibility for US credits last week offers Warsaw some economic relief, though it is mostly symbolic.
Shipments to the US, which were almost halved between 1980 and 1985, will begin to pick up. And the lifting of sanctions will give a boost to the drive for increased export, without which Poland cannot service, let alone repay, its colossal debts.
But otherwise, the end of sanctions will not inject an early stimulus to the Polish economy, still in bad shape overall despite modest improvements last year.
US most-favored-nation status can barely make a dent on debts expected to top $35 billion to the West this year (to say nothing of the $7 billion worth of convertible rubles Poland owes the Soviet Union and other partners in Comecon, the Soviet trading bloc.)
Ending sanctions, however, does create a potentially hopeful political opening, while raising a tough question: Can Poland's leaders use this latest move toward a traditional US relationship as a way to establish wider credibility and prompt confidence and a sense of common purpose among Poles at large?
The most important catalyst in this situation could be the next papal visit planned in June. The fact that it is taking place at all is striking confirmation of the new approaches set in motion by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
It is expected that the Pope will continue the note he struck on earlier visits in 1979 and 1983: unequivocally affirming the church's place in Poland, while noting just as firmly the responsibility of all Poles to work for broad national conciliation in the interests of their country.
This time, the latter sentiment will mean even more than it did on previous visits, because it can only add to Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's firmly established standing in Moscow, particularly with Mr. Gorbachev, who is known to be keenly interested in meeting the Pope. Such a meeting has been the subject of discreet soundings by all parties concerned for some time.
Meanwhile, in Poland itself, the other vital element remains the now-banned trade union Solidarity, however nonexistent the authorities claim it to be, remains a vital element in the political situation.
The union leaders themselves still have to settle on what precisely the union's role should be in a Poland that six months ago released the union's imprisoned leaders and activists and now is freed from the restraints of US sanctions.
The government spokesman hinted recently at cooperation with ``moderate'' former Solidarity followers, though still making pariahs of the dozen or so militants of the hard-core leadership that outlived the martial law period (1981-83).
It has seemed clear since the 1983 lifting of martial law that ultimately the authorities will have to bring Solidarity leader Lech Walsea, who enjoys mass worker confidence, into the conciliation process. No other spokesman could put across to the people the need for continued austerities and patience, without which neither the economic reform - which Solidarity backs - nor the nation itself can progress. Walesa himself has told this writer that he is ready any time to ``sit down [with government representatives] and talk without preconditions.''
Solidarity, the communist world's first independent trade union, may no longer be freely functioning. But the public regard for it, and for the extraordinary man who scrambled over the Gdansk shipyard fence in 1980 to form it, remains.
Much that Walesa has said and done suggests that the spectacle of a communist government in dialogue with a troublesome but obviously representative labor leader would not be the anathema to Gorbachev that it was in the past.