Round-table negotiations, slated to begin next week between Poland's communist authorities and the banned Solidarity trade union, will convene in an atmosphere of almost total uncertainty. The key issue is Solidarity's legalization. After two waves of strikes this year, Polish leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski says he wants to avoid another explosion by sharing power with the opposition.
Fine, Solidarity leaders respond. Prove it.
For them, the litmus test of General Jaruzelski's sincerity is the recognition of their union. On that crucial point, they do not know whether the General is planning to use the negotiations as a device to gain time or as a vehicle to strike a real agreement.
``Frankly, I have no answer to the question whether the government wants to stall or deal,'' admits Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a senior Solidarity adviser. ``Unless we can get an agreement on the question of Solidarity, it will be difficult to talk of progress.''
All signs indicate indecision within the ruling circles. In two meetings last month between union leader Lech Walesa and Interior Minister Czeslaw Kiszczak, the authorities avoided giving a clear answer about their plans for Solidarity.
``We asked about specific plans for Solidarity over and over at our last meeting with Kiszczak, and he said, `give us a little time,''' says Bronislaw Geremek, another senior Solidarity adviser. ``He said he was having problems and needed to get the apparatchiks accustomed to the new situation.''
Some in the party apparently argue that a renewed Solidarity would be less likely to become politicized if more pluralism is allowed in the parliament, and independent clubs and associations are permitted. Others fear losing their privileges and being overwhelmed.
``Solidarity's legalization is a very difficult question,'' says Daniel Passent, a columnist for the official weekly Polytika. ``If the government permits a powerful Solidarity, even observers in the West admit that it would be committing suicide. A possible way out would be to restrict its field of action.''
It is unclear how this party struggle has been resolved.
An internal party document leaked earlier this month to the Western press called for the formation of independent clubs and associations - but ruled out Solidarity's legalization.
In response, union leader Walesa threatened to boycott the talks. ``If this document proves to be true, I will not take part in the round-table,'' Mr. Walesa said. ``It makes no sense.'' The official Polish news agency promptly said the document did not exist.
``It looks like the authorities still haven't prepared their positions,'' Mr. Geremek says. ``At our meeting, Kiszczak told us that a new prime minister and government would be named to work everything out.''
The new prime minister is Mieczyslaw Rakowski, a figure nicknamed ``the Fox'' for his ability to weave his way through the tangled forest of Polish politics. Mr. Rakowski is known both for his pragmatism and his dislike of Solidarity.
His appointment offers few signs to clear up the cloud surrounding the talks, whose very ``round table'' formula remains vague. About 30 people on each side will participate. In theory, they will break up into small groups to discuss various topics: economic reform, political reform, and trade-union pluralism.
The authorities originally wanted to set up a large table with as many as 200 people discussing various topics. The opposition wanted a small table that would focus first and foremost on trade-union pluralism.
``The government wants to create a discussion club,'' complains Jacek Kuron, a key opposition leader. ``We want a two-sided negotiation about Solidarity.''
Admittedly, much of this haggling must be put in a larger perspective. Only two months ago, the authorities dismissed Solidarity leader Walesa as irrelevant, and refused to even talk to him. Then came the August strike wave, and the authorities realized that it risked ever-greater explosions unless something was done to share power. Interior Minister Kiszczak then broke the ice by meeting twice last month with Walesa.
``When we asked about recognizing Solidarity, the government representatives responded, `Look who we are talking with,''' recalls Solidarity adviser Geremek. ``That shows we already have recognized you.''
Most Poles are aware that this response will not suffice during the round-table. Solidarity is prepared to accept the present restrictive trade union law, which makes it difficult to strike. It also is prepared to organize in individual factories, not on a territorial basis. The open question is whether the authorities will take the chance to bring back a fully legal Solidarity.
``It's a question of time,'' says Solidarity adviser Mazowiecki. ``Both the authorities and us understand something must be done. But we may have a different understanding of how much time is left to solve the problem.''