A few years ago, state-run Polish television showed a blistering profile of Margaret Thatcher, depicting her as a heartless capitalist who ``took free milk away from school children.'' Now, in advance of the British leader's three-day trip to Poland starting today, Polish television has shown another profile describing Prime Minister Thatcher as ``a great politician.''
The change of heart represents much more than pre-trip publicity. It illustrates a new acceptance, mirrored in reform-minded Hungary and the Soviet Union, of the Thatcher recipe combining tough leadership with market reforms to reinvigorate an ailing economy.
``We need a Margaret Thatcher here,'' says Janos Fekete, president of the Hungarian National Bank. ``What she did with the coal mines, we have to do here.''
Such thinking is shared in Poland by Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, who has faced two waves of worker unrest this year. The communist regime took a cue this week from the tough Thatcher recipe, announcing the closure of the huge Lenin Shipyards in Gdansk, a bastion of the banned Solidarity trade union. (See story, Page 13.)
Union leader Lech Walesa denounced the decision to shut down the shipyard, but ironically he and other union leaders admire Mrs. Thatcher. For them, the British prime minister is a strong defender of democracy and trade-union pluralism.
``Everybody, officials and opposition, has this fascination about her personality and her success,'' former Solidarity spokesman Krzysztof Sliwinski says. ``When people say, `Oh, she's anti-union,' we answer, `No, she was just responding to the necessities of the British situation.'''
Hard-line East European leaders, particularly those in Prague, do not share this admiration. Britain recently expelled several Czechoslovak diplomats from London for spying, and issued a sharp protest after Czech police beat up a BBC reporter.
Poland's delicate political situation also puts a sensitive edge on Thatcher's visit. Her trip was postponed twice: first at British request, and last month at Polish request, to give time for new Polish Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Rakowski to form a government.
Thatcher now lands in Warsaw with the shipyard closure putting in doubt calls for ``round-table'' talks between Solidarity and the regime. British diplomats hope her presence will add pressure on the Warsaw regime to compromise with Solidarity activists.
``She wants to support freedom in Poland,'' a British diplomat says. ``Her goal is to reinforce the confidence of the Polish people.''
In previous trips to Hungary in 1984 and the Soviet Union in 1987, Thatcher was able to call for greater democratization without appearing to be against the host country's communist leadership.
In Poland, that is not so easy, since the pressure for reform doesn't come as much from above as from below, and her statements could be seen as supporting Solidarity.
Before accepting the invitation to visit, Thatcher insisted she be allowed to see Solidarity leader Walesa. The government agreed, and the meeting will take place Friday. Thatcher is scheduled to lay a flower at the shipyard monument of workers killed by police in 1970.
``It's becoming almost accepted that Western leaders make the pilgrimage to see Walesa,'' says a Western diplomat. ``The regime doesn't like it, but it has no choice.''
General Jaruzelski must hope the risk will pay off financially and diplomatically: in helping reschedule Poland's $40 billion debt and improving its poor relations with the West. Similar reasons explain Polish willingness to host other Western leaders, including Vice-President George Bush, who came last year, and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, due to arrive by early 1989.
East Europeans share another similarity of views with Thatcher: opposition to plans for a unified Western Europe.
``East Europeans fear getting shut out of the united market in 1992,''says Pierre Hassner of the Paris-based Center for International Studies.
Thatcher also has won over the communist leaders with her personality. She gets along famously with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. When new reform-minded Hungarian leader Karoly Grosz visited London this May, he came away impressed by her leadership role in promoting Britain's industrial renaissance.
When Thatcher is interviewed live by Polish television on Thursday, she is likely to present a similar message. In a talk last week with the magazine Polytika, she explained that success comes from old-fashioned positive thinking and hard work. It is a message that both communists and anticommunists will be able to applaud.