`A POLITICIAN,'' said Poland's Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski after his Communist Party Central Committee voted to talk with Solidarity about relegalization, ``never says never.'' But ``never'' was, in fact, what he and the leadership said, or implied, for seven years about Lech Walesa and the union proscribed since 1981. As late as last summer, talks were still officially out of question. Solidarity leader Walesa was dismissed as a mere private citizen, ``irrelevant to negotiation.''
Privately, much earlier, two leading figures (both now in the ruling Politburo) told this writer that ``sooner or later we shall have to talk with Walesa.'' But it took the threatened collapse of the economy to force this fundamental U-turn.
In the Soviet Union, Stalin's principal victims are also being restored to some sort of grace. They are, however, conveniently dead. The metamorphosis over the very-much-living Walesa is without precedent.
Solidarity's unflappable leader has become almost a Polish media folk hero. He has been subject of uncensored interviews with three pro-government journals. Following his lively November debate with the head of the government's unions, he appeared again in a nationally broadcast TV program. Walesa is ``legal,'' even if the trade union he leads is still banned.
Other notable dissidents of postwar Eastern Europe have had to endure the role of non-person much longer.
Given Yugoslavia's pioneering reform record, it is surprising that the longest term ``prisoner of silence'' should be that country's Milovan Djilas. Tito's one-time ``favorite son'' lost out in 1954 for pushing the same kind of democratization that official Hungary is embracing today.
Djilas spent a decade behind bars and two more as a personal and political pariah. Finally last year, five of his books were printed in Yugoslavia for the first time. But only in more democratically inspired Slovenia and, therefore, in the Slovene language, which is very different from Serbo-Croatian.
Recently, however, one volume - about the 19th century Montenegrin Prince-Bishop-Poet Njegos - was brought out in Serbia, though prompted more, it seems, by Serb nationalism than by concern for Yugoslav openness. (``It's a beginning,'' Mr. Djilas says.)
Czechoslovakia is also lagging in coming to terms with its distorted image of the Prague Spring and its leader, Alexander Dubcek. Last year he was allowed to visit Italy to receive a university honor. But there have been no further concessions either to him or to the reforms he launched in 1968, even though these are now largely reflected in Soviet reforms.
THERE is movement in the case of Imre Nagy, Hungary's leader at the time of the 1956 invasion. At last year's Communist Party conference launching the country on radical political and economic change, assurances were given that Nagy's role would be reevaluated. Recently the government announced that his remains would be removed from the unmarked grave to which he was ignominiously consigned after execution and given open, proper interment.
Now the party commission set up to take a fresh look at events in 1956 has brushed aside the old regime's claim of a Western-inspired ``counter-revolution.'' Nagy is criticized for mistakes, but what happened, the commission says, was ``a popular uprising against an oligarchic (Stalinist) system.'' The commission's findings had a bombshell effect on orthodox party ideologists, and constituted a step toward rehabilitation.
Djilas and Dubcec are both well beyond politics. But trends are likely to compel both Belgrade and Prague to put past records in truer perspective and, with that, correct the injustices done to personal standing.