Poland's waiting game

WE'RE seeing pictures of the room where Polish officials are supposed to sit down with representatives of the Solidarity trade union, but we're seeing little evidence of any actual sitting. The government is playing hide and seek, first indicating a willingness to talk, then setting conditions that cause a postponement. It's a dangerous game, as Poland's two waves of strikes this year should have made clear. Solidarity embodies Polish aspirations for a freer, more prosperous society; it has to be central to any discussion about the country's future. The communist leadership, however, seems unable to bring itself to see the independent union as anything less than a subversive organization intent on treason.

The government redraws its position every so often: A few months ago it ruled out even talking to Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, calling him ``irrelevant.'' Now it meets with him. But official strategy is basically to splinter the opposition by talking to some figures while ruling out others. The strategy has failed, since church leaders, intellectuals, and others recognize that a dialogue without Solidarity's full participation is meaningless.

Two months ago, Interior Minister Czeslaw Kiszczak met with Mr. Walesa and worked out an agreement to end the August strikes. Walesa got the workers back on the job; the government promised to discuss labor union pluralism and the role of Solidarity.

Since then, Walesa and the minister have met repeatedly to pave the way toward the promised roundtable talks. Now the government is apparently demanding an opportunity to dictate who can be in the Solidarity delegation, and is asking for assurances that two key Solidarity advisers, Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik, support Poland's current constitutional order. It's an arrogant demand that Walesa, very reasonably, refuses.

Meanwhile, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski and others in the government have been assuring party functionaries that Solidarity will never be reactivated on the shop floor - apparently excluding the main topic of discussion, Solidarity's legalization, before it's even been taken up. The country's new prime minister, Mieczyslaw Rakowski, has said Solidarity is not important to ``further democratization'' in Poland. There's a growing perception that the government is willing to accept the failure of the proposed talks rather than give ground on Solidarity.

What Poland needs is a national reconciliation that will remotivate its workers and muster resources to overhaul a tottering economy.

Western creditors have to be assured that real reform is on the way and that the government intends to work with those elements of Polish society, especially the church and Solidarity, that can generate true liberalization and democratization. That's the path to lasting stability, which is what a banker looks for.

What Poland is getting, instead, is a defensive, one-party government that won't loosen its grip on the privileges of power and tries to divide and co-opt its opposition instead of learning how to work with it.

The Jaruzeski regime takes a tremendous risk if it recognizes Solidarity. Polish politics may get hotter and economic reforms may still fall short. But it takes an even greater risk by trying to avoid that step.

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