Poland's Reluctant New Premier


TADEUSZ MAZOWIECKI was surprised to have been named as Poland's first noncommunist postwar prime minister. The soft-spoken Roman Catholic journalist and lawyer long argued in favor of restricting Solidarity to trade union issues. Even in this reform era of Mikhail Gorbachev, he didn't foresee a Solidarity-led government, much less his becoming prime minister.

``I don't see the possibility of a Christian ruler in Poland,'' he told the Monitor in an interview this spring. ``A lot is being said and discussed about that, but I think it is very, very far away.''

Mr. Mazowiecki must grapple with a worsening economic crisis while wresting control of the state bureaucracy from the tight grip of the Communist Party.

That grip may not be easy to break. Just one day after President Wojciech Jaruzelski asked Mazowiecki to form a government, the Polish Communist Party's Central Committee rebelled Sunday and demanded a bigger role in the new administration.

Solidarity leader Lech Walesa chose not to take the risk of diluting his political capital by becoming prime minister. Much better, he figured, to remain behind the scenes and wait for free presidential elections in six years' time.

The tall, taciturn Mazowiecki has none of Mr. Walesa's charisma. He was not chosen for his economic expertise or his managerial skills. His appointment instead reflects the influence of the Polish Catholic Church, along with a desire to preserve unity within Solidarity, balancing Christian democratic and social democratic wings.

A devout believer, Mazowiecki joined the progressive Catholic organization Pax in the 1940s, only to quit in 1955 when it became dominated by Stalinists. He eventually ended up editing the Catholic monthly Wiez, becoming its representative in parliament. In 1980, he traveled to Gdansk to present Walesa and his fellow shipyard workers with a letter of support from professors around the country.

``Thank you,'' Walesa said. ``But what we need are not petitions. What we need are experts, people like you, to talk to the government on our behalf. Please give us your help.''

Mazowiecki agreed. He ended up writing the text for the historic agreement ending the strike and giving birth to Solidarity. When martial law was declared in 1981, he was imprisoned for more than a year. After his release, he remained one of Walesa's closest advisers.

But in recent months, Mazowiecki faded to the background. He refused to run for parliament in June's elections, criticizing the selection procedure of candidates as undemocratic. Instead he concentrated on editing the Solidarity weekly Tygodnik Solidarnosc.

Power within Solidarity shifted to its Social Democratic wing, led by former communists Bronislaw Geremek and Adam Michnik. Mr. Geremek headed the Solidarity election campaign and then became parliamentary leader. Mr. Michnik took over the Solidarity daily Gazeta, which soon overshadowed Mazowiecki's weekly.

``Tadeusz became almost invisible, by his own choice,'' said Kryzsztof Sliwinski, Gazeta's Managing editor. ``We pleaded with him to be a candidate. He refused. We pleaded with him to work with Gazeta. He preferred the weekly.''

When Gazeta's editor Michnik first broached the idea of Solidarity's taking over the government in July, Mazowiecki responded negatively. Solidarity should not risk it, he argued.

But ironically, while losing direct influence, Mazowiecki amassed a new type of power. Complaints were heard about Solidarity being taken over by a lay, left-wing cabal. The Roman Catholic hierarchy was worried. Many suspected Mazowiecki was playing a tactical game, hoping the left-wingers had miscalculated.

By naming Mazowiecki, and not Geremek as first expected, Walesa headed off this scenario and calmed Catholic fears. Communist President Jaruzelski must also have preferred Mazowiecki, who is more reserved and less well known in Poland and abroad than historian Geremek.

The decision to enter the government divided Solidarity. Pessimists suspect the Communists of laying a trap, forcing Solidarity to take blame for the Communists' sorry legacy: triple-digit inflation and falling living standards. They worry that the United Peasants' Party and the Democratic Party, the Communists' former satellites and Solidarity's present coalition partners, might prove treacherous. And finally, they fear that the Soviets, even under Mikhail Gorbachev, will squeeze Solidarity's governing options.

`WE must not form a government, because we won't have real power,'' Andrzej Machalski, a Solidarity senator recently argued.

Since Mazowiecki agreed with these complaints, why did he accept the office? Critics within Solidarity point to personal ambition.

They say he is temperamental, somewhat prickly, even a bit vain.

But these same critics admit that Mazowiecki is a fundamentally honest and loyal man. Deep down, they say, he did not want to see Walesa and Solidarity fail. Mazowiecki himself probably saw that Solidarity either had to accept the responsibility of power or let Poland drift without an effective government. If it waited to pick up the pieces, there might not be any pieces left to pick up.

When the Round-table talks began this spring, Mazowiecki originally thought that Solidarity could be relegalized only under strict restrictions. ``The Communists will never accept us if we try to become a broad social movement, an umbrella like in 1980,'' he said.

He was wrong. The Communists wanted a strong partner, so they permitted the relegalized Solidarity to become once again a broad-based social and political organization. Mazowiecki resisted this change.

But in the end he proved shrewd enough to realize that the only possible solution to Poland's present political crisis was what he not too long ago thought impossible: a Christian ruler.

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