Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski is winning the battles - and losing the war. The Polish leader ended a wave of strikes this spring without giving workers what they wanted - restoration of the independent trade union Solidarity. Parliament voted him special powers and popular Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited to tell Poles how ``lucky'' they were to have the general as their leader.
But little has come of these victories. The country's political deadlock is deepening.
When the government proposed ambitious economic reforms last year, it failed to build a consensus. A referendum was held. The public voted no. The government plowed ahead with steep price increases to balance shortage-riddled markets. Workers struck back, receiving wage raises that offset the price increases - and killed reform.
Despite new powers, the government doesn't dare reform any more, for fear of public reaction. Evidence of worker discontent has reinvigorated the opposition. Many Poles also wonder how Mr. Gorbachev can be a true reformer if he counts the plodding general as his best ally.
A comparison with 1976 is often heard. In that year, the communist government of Edward Gierek survived a rash of protests, only to plant the seeds of his own downfall four years later. Like Mr. Gierek, General Jaruzelski has quieted workers with a mixture of bribery and force, pay raises and riot police.
``I remember 1976, I remember 1980, and I see us in a similar transition period,'' says Bogdan Lis, a member of Solidarity's National Coordinating Committee. ``Both us and the authorities realize something violent could happen.''
The opposition insists on the relegalization of Solidarity. The government is ready to accept almost anything except a return of the banned union.
``The government says, `We will give you free associations, we will give you seats in parliament, we will give you political pluralism,''' says Bronislaw Geremek, one of the opposition leaders involved in talks with government officials. ``The only thing that would prove they are serious about reform and sharing power they won't give us - Solidarity.''
Without a compromise, Deputy Prime Minister Zdzislaw Sadowski, the man who on paper now enjoys nearly dictatorial sway over the economy, conceded in an interview with the Monitor that he has almost no room for maneuver. ``We have to take a pause'' from reforms ``for the next six months to let society adapt'' to the proposals, Mr. Sadowski says. ``People are too impatient, they want results right away.''
The Soviet Union's reforming fervor adds to the pressure for quick changes. Although Jaruzelski has curried favor in Moscow, Mr. Gorbachev is unwittingly undermining his friend. Unlike past Polish communist leaders, the general can no longer invoke the threat of Soviet intervention in refusing concessions.
For some Poles, Gorbachev appears to be a bold reformer, while Jaruzelski approaches change in the conservative, cautious fashion of an Army officer.
Considerable irony can be found in this criticism. By almost all standards, there is greater freedom to practice religion and to express criticism in Poland than in the Soviet Union. The problem is that Polish expections are so high.
``For a long time, we seemed out in front of reforming communism,'' says Stefan Bratkowski, an independent journalist. ``It's hard for us to accept that the Soviet Union now is moving faster.''
Another growing current of Polish opinion likens Gorbachev to the 19th-century liberal czars who didn't do anything to help Poles. When Czar Alexander II began reforming after Russia lost the Crimean War, Poles living under Russian occupation rejoiced. They thought reform in Russia would mean more freedom for themselves. A group of Polish aristocrats even traveled to St. Petersburg to praise the czar, only to hear Alexander rebuff them with two words: ``Stop dreaming.''
``Gorbachev is just like Alexander II,'' exclaims Bogdan Borusewicz, a leading Solidarity activist in Gdansk. ``We can't wait for the Russians to reform, we have to look out for own interests.''
This pressure could prove fatal for Jaruzelski. Poles and Western diplomats here have begun envisaging his removal, perhaps as early as next year at a special party conference. They say that, after he decreed martial law in 1981 and then often promised but never delivered dramatic reform, his credibility is too low ever to forge a solid national consensus.
``The obvious precondition for change is Jaruzelski's departure,'' says one diplomat. ``The problem is, who will replace him?''
Unlike the Hungarian Communist Party, the Polish party boasts no up-and-coming shining lights. It still has not recovered from the massive defections of the Solidarity years, and many mid-level party officials seem better suited to serve as night watchmen than as the governing elite.
The most possible successors mentioned most are Politburo members Stanislaw Ciosek and Mieczyslaw Rakowski. Both hold tattered reformist reputations. Mr. Rakowski negotiated with Lech Walesa back in 1981, and developed a personal hatred of the Solidarity leader. Mr. Ciosek, now responsible for contacts with the opposition, has swung back and forth from conservative to liberal in his long career as a top-ranking party apparatchik.
In the past, Poland's explosions were mostly nonviolent, with limited goals. The next time, the explosion could be violent, and the organized opposition might not be able to control it: A group of young workers in one town attacks the police and burns down party headquarters. Other workers follow them. They call for free elections and quitting the Warsaw Pact.
``The young are so much more radical than us,'' Solidarity veteran Borusewicz worries. ``They want changes - and changes fast.''
First of three. Next: Solidarity's radical young strikers.