Poland is at a crossroads. Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski outlined dramatic plans yesterday for economic and political reforms of the Polish Communist Party's Central Committee, reforms the official government spokesman described as ``an earthquake.''
The stakes indeed are large for all of Eastern Europe - and for Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
While other Soviet allies such as East Germany and Czechoslovakia resist Mr. Gorbachev's appeals for change, Poland's officials stressed in recent interviews in Warsaw that they are moving ahead precisely because of the new climate created by the Soviet leader.
``The fact that the Soviet Union has started this process is crucial,'' Zdislaw Sadowski, vice-prime minister for economic affairs, told the Monitor. ``It makes it much easier for us to go ahead with reform.''
But the Polish plans also are also dangerous for Gorbachev. Poland is his largest, most strategically situated, and most volatile ally. It faces economic woes from its $35 billion debt and political problems stemming from the 1981 destruction of the independent trade union Solidarity.
To break out of this situation, General Jaruzelski proposes reforms that go far beyond anything the Soviet leader envisions for his own country. In his interview, Mr. Sadowski talked of establishing a competitive banking system and diminishing central planning, policies that resemble those carried out in communist Hungary and China.
But Jaruzelski is adding new ideas more daring and difficult than attempted elsewhere. They include proposals to dismantle entire ministries, open a stock market, and expand private enterprise. And for the first time since he came to power eight years ago, Jaruzelski says he is ready to cut the Poles' standard of living. He says this is necessary to end rationing and fill store shelves. Wages will be frozen. Prices will be raised by up to 50 percent. Such plans require political support. In the past, government attempts to raise prices have set off worker revolts, including the 1980 shipyard strikes in Gdansk which resulted in Solidarity's creation.
To head off popular unrest, Jaruzelski talks of holding a referendum on the plans. Such a referendum would be a first for communist Poland. On a more permanent basis, the general suggests creating ``political clubs'' where ``everyone could freely express his opinion'' and to open municipal elections to candidates from the opposition.
Will these changes be sufficient? Jaruzelski continues to rule out restoring Solidarity's legal status or reinstating any union pluralism. For that reason, Western diplomats and Solidarity leaders have reacted with great caution. They acknowledge the government's reform proposals are ambitious, but remain skeptical they can be carried out, because of stiff resistance from the bureaucracy and continuing distrust from the population.
``The power knows it has to do something to prevent an explosion,'' Bronislaw Geremek, a top Solidarity adviser, told the Monitor. ``But the real political changes which are necessary involve doing unexpected things, dangerous things.''
The document presented Thursday to the Central Committee acknowledges that ``many people are critical and skeptical toward the socialist system'' and pledges the party ``to open a discussion with the opposition.''
But Jaruzelski continues to attack the opposition. The same government spokesman who described his reforms as ``an earthquake'' accused the opposition this week of smuggling arms into the country. Opposition leaders such as Mr. Geremek qualified the accusation as ``absurd.''