POLAND, Lech Walesa, and the Solidarity union have been at the crossroads of change in Eastern Europe since 1980. Now all three are going through wrenching evolutions - as if Poland's economic bullet-biting weren't enough. The ``holy unity'' that has brought Solidarity through the worst storms of the past seems to be cracking. A rift between Mr. Walesa and Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki (who Walesa picked for the job last August) is developing into a major split in Solidarity along lines of ``workers'' and ``intellectuals.''
Walesa believes the reform process in Poland is not moving fast enough. Mr. Mazowiecki believes in a moderate pace. The split extends to foreign policy as well. Walesa advocates immediate acceptance, for example, of Lithuanian independence. Mazowiecki adopts the US-European mode of caution in this matter.
Behind the split is Walesa's own desire to be president of Poland - and the autocratic (or anti-democratic) methods he appears to use in pursuing his ends. His ouster last week of longtime Solidarity adviser Henryk Wujec as secretary of the Citizens Committee, and the attempted removal of Solidarity saint Adam Michnik as editor of the union newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, are examples.
A two-party system in Poland might not be a bad idea. So far, the country has moved from the Communist Party to the Solidarity union. Two sides offering criticism and new proposals may speed the democratic process - and help counter what this newspaper reported last week as the ``mental Sovietization'' still existent in Poland.
Walesa, meanwhile, needs to be careful that he doesn't get carried away with himself. He's a historic figure of enormous influence, and he needs to retain enough personal and political capital to mend rifts between workers and intellectuals in a crisis. He has embittered too many Solidarity loyalists already.
While opposing parties might be to the good, some unity is vital during economic peril. This is true not only for Poland, but for the region as a whole. A collapse in Poland would have a negative effect on other tender East European states. It can't be allowed to happen.