He had hung on for two weeks as Poland’s crisis swirled around him, and his countrymen had begun to suspect that he might just manage, against all the odds, to retain his shaky throne. But time ran out suddenly on Friday night for Edward Gierek, the Communist party boss whose muddled economic doctrine had steered Poland straight toward disaster, with the dramatic announcement that he had been taken to a Warsaw clinic with heart trouble. A matter of hours later the central committee gathered in a box-like building known as the “White House,” in the centre of the Polish capital, to announce the discredited Gierek’s departure and to pick his successor, the country’s cool security chief Stanislaw Kania.
The name came as a surprise. Earlier betting in the leadership stakes was heavily on Stefan Olszowski, 49, an ambitious economic reformer whom Gierek called back from political exile in East Germany two weeks ago to help deal with the runaway strikes that were crippling the country and were to force the party to grant workers the right— never before accorded in a Communist country—to set up their own unions and to stage strikes.
However, the choice of hard-liner Kania, a 53-year-old apparatchik who took over internal security in 1971, was not expected to signal a crackdown on the freedoms that have sprung from Poland’s summer of discontent. Nor was it obvious that Kania’s appointment had been forced through by the Soviet Union. Although President Leonid Brezhnev’s warm greeting to their new party leader aroused some cynicism among Poles, the tough Olszowski would probably have suited the Kremlin just as well. “Kania-got the nod simply because his functions gave him a wider grasp of the situation than others in line for the job,” declared a Polish foreign office aide, who described the new party boss as “efficient, nimble-minded and essentially quite moderate.”
A thickset man with bushy hair, Kania won good marks under Gierek by acting strictly to command, steering clear of political intrigue and generally keeping a quiet profile. He cracked skulls in the 1976 riots but, later, when the party offered Poland a degree of freedom, did nothing to halt the process
of liberalization. In the recent turmoil, Kania surprised some observers by being every bit as unflappable and conciliatory as the government ministers who negotiated directly with the Gdansk ship workers and Silesian miners. He thus bore out the paradox in Eastern Europe that security bosses are frequently more “liberal” than other Communist top-liners, if only because they know exactly what is going on and how much muscle they need to deal with trouble. This impression was reinforced by Kania’s memorable address to the nation on Saturday night in which he promised to renew the democratic links between government and people and appeared to eschew a strong-man role in favor of collective leadership.
But the mess Kania is inheriting from 67-year-old Gierek would test the coolest character. With Poland’s economy in shreds from 10 years of neglect, its workers on the warpath and the Soviet Union poised to walk in should chaos ensue, Kania has hardly any room to manoeuvre. You do not have to be an
economist to realize that he will be unable to deliver on many of the breadand-butter pledges the government made in Gdansk to coax back the workers, let alone allow them full enjoyment of every freedom they obtained. Yet, if he whittles away too blatantly at the historic pact, he risks igniting the country. Last week’s unrest in Silesia was an indication of what could happen were the authorities to withhold the benefits of the milestone Gdansk agreements from other workers; and fresh strikes will likely erupt here and there until every last man has it in writing that he is eligible for the advantages won by the industrial elite.
Just how hamstrung the government is on this issue became clear at a crucial moment in the Gdansk talks when Deputy Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Jagielski found himself confronting the strikers’ demands for a general 2,000zloty pay rise. Jagielski produced figures to show that 2,000 zlotys a month for 12 million Poles would boost the
wages bill next year by the equivalent of $10 billion. The optimum increase in production in the present state of the economy would be slightly less than $2 billion. “Count for yourselves, boys,” was the message. So the phase unfolding for Poland now could be even more delicate and dangerous than that which preceded the Gdansk and Silesian settlements.
The crisis has been a stop-and-go affair all along. The fuss would die for a while, only for events to pick up so rapidly that one day’s development would stand yesterday’s on its ear. But even before Gierek’s fall there was no feeling in Warsaw that the situation was in danger of racing out of control. This was largely due to the smooth crisis management by the government. It has been a stunning feature of this summer storm that the rulers have appeared ready to talk with their people about happenings both gigantic and minor with a frankness that would do credit to a Western country, rather than retreating—a move that could create a power vacuum so gaping as to invite foreign intervention—or acting paternalistically. The leadership confronted the turmoil with a we’re-all-in-thesame-boat approach. What is more, in presenting the Polish fever as a family sickness that could, with time and patience, be cured by purely Polish remedies, it not only soothed Soviet nerves but plucked the patriotic chord that seems to vibrate in every Pole, more powerfully even than religion.
At week’s end, after the leadership switch, the mood in Warsaw was exceedingly calm, prompting a Western businessman who arrived in midweek to the judgment that the city was the “last
damned place on earth you sense the Polish crisis.” For sheer excitement, a soccer match pitting a top club in Warsaw against Lodz last Wednesday beat the strikes hands down. Far from besieging the newsstands for the latest word, the crowds had returned to lining up on the main drag, Marszalkowska, for ice cream—the six-zloty special that so pleases the people’s legendary sweet tooth.
An excellent barometer of crisis is the black-market rate for dollars offered by the hustlers who approach tourists around the big hotels. Normally three times higher than the official rate, it soared to six times when matters turned sticky in Gdansk. On Saturday it was down to four.
Do the Poles realize they are living historic days? Not really. Events have moved far too quickly, leaving them not a little mystified. “It will take us months to digest the largest parts,” said economist Tadeusz Sobieszek. “But don’t expect Polish society to be turned topsy-turvy. We mean to gradually graft change onto the present system to obtain our own brand of socialism.” A leading Warsaw journalist, who asked not to be identified, pointed out that Poland’s geographical position meant it could not aspire to Western democracy. “But we can certainly hold out for the very best brand of socialism available,” he added. Still, no one imagines for a moment that the astonishing freedoms granted at Gdansk and elsewhere will
be honored in full. “All we can hope for is that when the government finishes whittling away there will be enough meat left on the bone to change the lot of Polish workers,” said Sobieszek.
So much for hope. What is likely to be the reality? It has been the government’s policy throughout to get people back to work, even if it meant eating humble pie, making Mickey Mouse offers, sacrificing long-held principles and—last week—offering the party leader’s head. But in a TV speech hours before Gierek’s departure the new prime minister, Jozef Pinkowski, made a plea that probably contained the key to its future line. “We must absolutely pile on the work in order to compensate
for the losses incurred by the strikes and to inspire confidence among creditors in the West,” he insisted.
Western economists, who estimate losses from the walkout at anything between $2 and $4 billion, couldn’t agree more, despite President Jimmy Carter’s willingness at week’s end to offer a further $125 million in food credits, on top of 1980’s $550 million.
But Pinkowski also touched on a sore point here. Although Poland’s industrial workers are a pampered minority—a miner’s salary of 10,000 zlotys a month matches that of an associate university professor—they are not heroic wielders of the hammer or the shovel.
“In fact, they’re work-shy if you compare them to the East Germans and Czechs,” said a Canadian economist on post in Warsaw. “You can find excuses for them because they’re infected by the hopelessness of an economic situation in which transportation, energy and farming have all but collapsed. But the fact remains they are inefficient and underproductive.”
When the strikers were fencing with government negotiators at Gdansk, it was their common—and significantboast that they could make up for work lost through their 18-day strike by turning in a week of “real work.” Additionally they promised, in the event of victory, to work quite a lot harder in the future. The government now shows every sign of holding them to their word.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.