LECH WALESA has embarked on the most dangerous mission since his emergence as a leader of Poland's Solidarity movement eight years ago. His initial meeting with Gen. Czeslaw Kiszczak, the interior minister who ordered his internment in the aftermath of martial law in December 1981, was a calculated but risky gamble. In the coming talks, Mr. Walesa will need to summon all his fabled skills as a negotiator. Back in 1982, Solidarity adviser Adam Michnik reflected bitterly on the way Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's government had violated the Gdansk accords that legalized Solidarity. ``Reaching agreements of any kind with people who treat the very concept of `agreements' completely arbitrarily, who regularly go back on their promises, and for whom lies are their daily bread, is contrary to common sense,'' he wrote in a letter from prison.
Now, Walesa has called on workers to end their strikes not on the basis of any agreement but merely on the same government's promise that it will discuss means of achieving a new agreement. Many workers are questioning the wisdom of such tactics, and how well Walesa will represent them. If he does not achieve results they deem acceptable, his authority could be fatally compromised.
What accounts for Walesa's actions? After repeatedly proclaiming Solidarity's willingness to restart the dialogue with the government, he could hardly refuse to sit down now. Whatever the misgivings of many Poles, the fact that the government has been forced to acknowledge Solidarity's existence and Walesa's leadership represents a dramatic turnaround. The years of willful blindness have drawn to a close.
But controversy surrounds Walesa's decision to call off the strikes. He felt that he had little choice. The strikes were only actively supported by a tiny fraction of the exhausted and demoralized Polish work force, and they were weakening. Walesa evidently figured that it was better to end them as a goodwill gesture than to let them sputter out inconclusively.
If Solidarity is dealing from a position of weakness, so is the Jaruzelski regime. The government may have been able to suppress strikes through regular displays of force, but it could not mobilize popular support for economic reform policies that have gone nowhere. In part, this was because those policies were poorly conceived and executed. But even brilliant remedies would have stood no chance of success. Sullen workers, who have endured a 20 percent drop in real wages over the past eight years, can sabotage any program simply by working as little as possible - without ever formally going out on strike.
Given the steady deterioration of living conditions, the failure of previous strikes only added to the overall sense of despair. When a young worker cannot expect to find food in the stores or obtain an apartment until his children are fully grown, what does he have to lose? The government was forced to deal with Walesa because of the fear that the next outburst, whenever it came, could spin out of everybody's control.
The key question is whether this represents a tactical diversion or a genuine shift in policy. Some Politburo members will be sorely tempted to string Walesa along, whittling away his credibility with his own constituency until he is effectively neutralized as an opposition leader. Others may be more farsighted, recognizing that a deal with a moderate like Walesa may be the best hope for staving off a storm.
Despite all their anger and frustration, most Poles still hold out a slim hope for compromise. ``Compromise is necessary for a healthy public life, provided that it is real compromise, both in substance and in the public eye,'' Mr. Michnik wrote in the same letter from prison in 1982. Today, even more than at the time, Poles will base their final judgment on the specific results of any negotiations rather than hailing the government's mere willingness to talk as a triumph in itself.
Walesa surely understands the stakes involved in hammering out the terms of a new agreement - for him and his nation. He is willing to gamble his personal authority because so much more hangs in the balance. That is a sign of a genuine leader. If his courage can be matched on the government side, Poland may yet have a chance of beginning the long journey of political and economic recovery.
Andrew Nagorski is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.