POLAND'S former communists are being forced to evolve further away from their red roots.
In trying to paint themselves as a moderate, West-European-style leftist party, they have moved to expose the darkest secrets of their nation's postwar past.
Since 1989, the Social Democratic Party (SdRP) has tried to shed its scarlet letter as Poland's former Communist Party. But now, after Jozef Oleksy was forced to resign Jan. 26 as prime minister over charges that he spied for Moscow, President Alexander Kwasniewski - himself a former communist - is maneuvering once again to dispel concern about his party's credibility. He has submitted a bill to parliament that would open the old regime's secret police files and purge collaborators from high-level office.
He will also try to reassure US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, who met with Polish leaders yesterday to reaffirm support for the country's application for NATO membership and to discuss ''the political crisis in Poland,'' according to Dariusz Rosati, minister of foreign affairs.
Kwasniewski, who leads the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), a left-wing group whose core is formed from the SdRP, once opposed opening the files but now says he wants ''to close the account'' on Poland's past.
But critics say that the files will be used to retaliate against the right wing and former President Lech Walesa, who started the accusations against Mr. Oleksy. Indeed, Mr. Walesa, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his fight against communism in the 1980s, has been accused himself of collaboration with the secret police.
''This lustration [vetting] is an attempt to cover up the weight of the accusations against the former prime minister as well as the group of politicians he comes from,'' said Jan Olszewski, a right-wing former prime minister who advocates opening the files but says it is a mistake to let the ex-communists control the process.
Yet for the former communists, vetting could deflect what they see as a ''witch hunt.'' ''The president wants to show that he is not under any party or political influence by covering up communism's past,'' said Zbigniew Bujak, a professor of politics at Krakow's Jagiellonian University.
Other countries in Central Europe have been carrying out purges of former communists. But when Poland's Communists consented to share power with Walesa's Solidarity movement in 1989, both sides agreed not to put the Communists on trial. Since then, however, the situation has been political quagmire of unresolved accusations.
At stake for the SLD, if they cannot maintain their credibility, is the ''red web'' that the former communists have democratically rebuilt since the beginning of multiparty rule - a political and economic base of former Party members who are managers of state and privatized firms.
''The SLD has a fast start after the fall of Communism because they had already a base to build on and now they dominate the political scene,'' said Mr. Bujak.
Although the SLD platform proposes reform, Bujak said ''there is no clear left orientation like in Western Europe, but a post-communist orientation'' of centralization.
The ex-communists are hoping the new pragmatic prime minister, Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, can help stabilize the government. Mr. Cimoszewicz never joined the SdRP and ''doesn't vote along the old-style communist lines because he isn't under the influence of party connections,'' said Bujak.