Poland’s tense revival

Peter Lewis December 20 1982

Poland’s tense revival

Peter Lewis December 20 1982

Poland’s tense revival


Peter Lewis

The warning was distressingly familiar: a droning, tape-recorded admonition that “this call is monitored.” Poland’s 3,439,700 private telephone users did not need a reminder. Nor did they need any recapitulation of the lesson learned since Dec. 13, 1981. A year after Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski imposed martial law, Poland has indeed been “normalized,” to comply with Eastern Europe’s authoritarian Communist style of government, its experiment with trade unions and liberalization effectively killed. As Jaruzelski recently declared with confidence, “Con-

ditions in the country are now stable.” The dispiriting truth of that observation has become increasingly clear. The wave of strikes and riots that followed the declaration of martial law, resulting in the deaths of 15 people, has spent itself. By detaining more than 10,000 dissidents and charging 3,616 others (the official count) with martial law offences, the regime has shattered the opposition. By outlawing Solidarity, it has left the union’s charismatic leader, Lech Walesa, to search for a constituency among a scattered membership under constant threat from new “antiparasite” laws that effectively block the regime’s opponents from organizing. The Roman Catholic Church is trapped

in a cruel dilemma: how to retain the loyalty of its deeply religious flock while manoeuvring for its own survival and attempting to salvage what it can from the wreckage. In the constant battle for existence against official restrictions, food shortages and steep price increases, Poles have learned to live without their dreams.

For days experts forecast the imminent lifting of martial law. In Washington last week President Ronald Reagan said he would welcome such a move but would be looking for real change, not gestures. In Brussels for a NATO foreign ministers meeting, Secretary of State George Shultz echoed his boss’s caution. Jaruzelski himself told Polish miners

that the military council had agreed to have the Sejm “discuss the martial law issue.” Added the premier: “We intend to lift the militarization of enterprises while retaining definite legal norms to regulate the transition period.”

The easing of the regime’s heavyhanded domination will almost certainly be gradual. On Saturday Gen. Jozef Baryla, the Communist Party’s chief political officer, said that, although the relaxation process will begin this week—the first anniversary of martial law—the authorities will adopt special powers to prevent any internal threat to security. Said the general: “There is pessimism and fear of possible resurgence of hostile forces and antisocial elements, a return to the tensions and anarchy known before last Dec. 13.” Still, relaxation is unavoidable. Even under the thrall of martial law, Poles have known that Solidarity has changed the face of their country irrevocably, and nothing will ever be the same again. For his part, Jaruzelski left two questions unresolved: how the country will eventually be governed, and what part, if any, Walesa and the unions will be allowed to play.

Destroyed: Traditionally, the government machine has operated under the rigid control of the Communist Party secretary and the Politburo. But that tradition was destroyed by the foundation and subsequent formal recognition of Solidarity in 1980. Despite its claim that it plays the “leading role” in society, the party has never recovered from the setbacks it received as the union fought for recognition and, having won it, then exercised its newfound political muscle effectively . The party was exhausted. Its ranks had been depleted by as many as 100,000 members, purged for pro-Solidarity leanings since last December. Largely discredited as a body representative of the Polish people, it is no longer well positioned to resume its all-embracing role. It is still so unpopular that it is unlikely to be granted the unfettered control of the country it once enjoyed. At the same time, it would be difficult for the army to take control after martial law has lost its bite.

As a result, the ruling officials are now weighing the risks of taking what would be a revolutionary step in East Bloc politics: the creation of a presidential system formalizing Jaruzelski’s current role as army, party and government leader. Under that system, a directly elected president would swear allegiance to the party in order to embody its “leading role.” But it is unlikely that such a break with Communist ortho-


doxy could occur swiftly. Instead, the transitional period foreshadowed by Jaruzelski may indicate that there will be a long, drawn-out debating process. Baryla, for one, made no mention of releasing all internees or even of granting an amnesty for those convicted under martial law, two major concessions that the opposition is hoping for. Indeed, he stressed that the government will continue to pursue an extremely cautious course.

Dynamic: In a new presidential system, Jaruzelski would certainly be the front-runner for the top position and he ’clearly relishes such a role. His critics claim that he wants to emulate another dynamic Polish military leader, Marshal Jozef Pilsudski. Both men seized power at a time of national crisis, in Pilsudski’s case the parliamentary and economic uproar of 1926. Jaruzelski, like Pilsudski, advocates strong government and never misses an occasion to parade his patriotism. But Pilsudski was a popular figure. Jaruzelski is not. There are also doubts about his physical strength. Poland’s military leader wears a brace to ease severe back pain and suffers frequent migraine attacks. Insiders also claim that his nervous system, never strong, has been weakened by the strain of recent years.

The future of Walesa is equally hard to chart (page 49). His Solidarity movement, once 10-million-strong, was dissolved in October, and on his release from detention last month he found

himself without an organized following. But he is not without a cause. Polish workers, disdainful of the new union structure proposed by Jaruzelski, are looking to him for a lead. And Walesa’s captivity, far from diminishing his stature, has added patina to his legend. At the same time, he has dispelled fears that he compromised himself in order

to win his freedom by defiantly renewing his dedication to the spirit of the Gdansk agreements.

Last week, in his first official statement since his release, Walesa made public a letter which he wrote to Jaruzelski. In it Walesa called for a fullscale amnesty program, the reinstatement of all those dismissed from their lt; j obs for political reasons and the accept - g ance of a plurality of free trade unions. $ Said Walesa: “The awakening of socials efforts and strengthening the position s

of Poland in the world are possible only through rebuilding mutual trust between the society and government.” But Walesa’s future depends not only on what he does—he has promised to unveil his plans later this month—but also on what the regime permits him to do. A hint of Warsaw’s intentions came recently. Government spokesman Jerzy Urban, who had previously insisted that Walesa was a “private citizen,” told Maclean's that the government was prepared to treat him as a “partner,” if,

among other things, Walesa respects the National Accord, a broad truce that the regime wants declared among government, church and labor. There are strong reports in his home town of Gdansk that Walesa will soon apply for work at the shipyards as an electrician (his former trade). Then he may start a “legal” union of his own. (The new, government-approved unions are to begin functioning in January.) Or he might join an existing union and work his way to the top. There is little doubt that former Solidarity militants would gravitate to his side.

Walesa’s dilemma—whether to play a passive or an active role—is shared to some degree by the Polish primate, Archbishop Jozef Glemp. Initially, he was an outspoken opponent of martial law. But gradually the church has taken a softer line, hoping to win concessions from the regime. In part, the policy has been successful. The church is credited with having persuaded the authorities to ease conditions for detainees and it may have played a part in the release of Walesa. In addition, its muted approach undoubtedly played a part in paving the way for Pope John Paul Il’s visit next June. But the price has been high. At times, Glemp has endured heavy criticism from intellectuals and his young clergy. He also may have earned the displeasure of the Pope, who has consistently taken a tougher stand. Polish Catholics are surprised that Glemp has not been made a cardinal, a rank that

normally goes with the job.

The archbishop was sharply criticized when he addressed 300 Warsaw priests recently in an attempt to defend his conciliatory policies. But, in a nation that is 90-per-centCatholic,thechurchis destined to resume its influence when martial law is suspended. There is even some speculation in Warsaw that a new Catholic party will eventually be formed and that it might control as many as 25 per cent of the seats in the Sejm, forming the official opposition. But any premature strengthening in the church’s opposition could give the regime an excuse to delay the easing of martial law restrictions or to call off the Pope’s visit.

Even with Walesa and the church in limbo temporarily, any new administration will face a daunting task in setting the country on the road to economic recovery, the most pressing task of the foreseeable future. Life in Poland on the first anniversary of martial law was a burden. Almost all services and industries are at least as inefficient as they were before the military crackdown. And, added to that aggravation, Poles have run through the full range of emotions in the year of army rule: from hope, too often quickly confounded, through stark terror to leaden indifference. Their state of mind, to some experienced Eastern European hands, is reminiscent of that in Czechoslovakia after Warsaw Pact troops invaded and crushed Alexander Dubcek’s brief experiment in “socialism with a human face,” in August, 1968. Czechoslovakian


anger quickly turned to apathy and cynicism, which, apart from a few pockets of activism, persists.

In their current state of nervous exhaustion and depression, most Poles find it impossible to work up any passion about the impact of government on their daily lives. They will almost certainly recover their former vigor. There has been plenty of evidence of their resilience even during the months of martial law. In the first grey, snowbound days of army rule it seemed that the country would inevitably be cowed by the military’s iron discipline. But soon soldiers were siphoning gas from ar-

mored vehicles to sell to motorists, and police patrols were looking the other way when carousers found themselves on the street after the 11 p.m. curfew. More recently, troops on the fringes of demonstrations would tip off passersby about which route to take to avoid running into the hated ZOMO security squads. And the black market always flourished.

But martial law restrictions have had a lasting impact on the Polish people. Jaruzelski’s military takeover, after the heady days of Solidarity’s supremacy, dealt a stunning blow to the national psyche. Every Pole can recall precisely what he was doing on Dec. 13, 1981, at the moment he realized that the country had been clapped in irons. The first days are etched in the collective experience with the clarity of a nightmare. First, there was a growing awareness of mass arrests being carried out. Then, on Dec. 16, there was a chilling official acknowledgment from Katowice that

eight miners at the Wujek colliery had been shot during defiant protests. For days, millions of Poles were traumatized, grieving for the fallen, burying their own hopes, expecting the worst.

Jaruzelski’s repressive tactics did not follow any clear pattern. Many of those who most feared punishment were unmolested. Others, whose activities gave authorities little cause for reproach, were arrested. Gradually, it became clear that there would not be an allembracing purge and that the master plan was imprecise. Jaruzelski, it seemed, was less concerned with chastising his countrymen for their thoughts than for their acts, particularly acts that took place after the dec-

laration of martial law. Says a former detainee, 42-year-old sociology professor Marek Tabin, now planning to emigrate to Edmonton: “The policy was management by uncertainty.”

As a result, even the Katowice shootings were an aid to the regime. For one thing, they brought antimartial law protests to a swift conclusion—for a time, anyway. For another, they made Jaruzelski’s subsequent retreat from brutality resemble an exercise in restraint. “Against calamity, the less awful suddenly came to have its merits, and the soldier, in not exercising his right to kill, became a reasonable guy,” says Wojciech Lamentowicz, a Warsaw academic. The perverse logic of such contrasts made possible the emergence of a small, but important, measure of support for martial law.

Another major factor that helped the government to snuff out opposition was Poland’s unending economic crisis. Even the most militant opponents of


the regime have been forced to use up much of their energies in the grim business of simply surviving amid the worst shortages Poland has experienced since the late 1940s. Strict rationing and systematic price increases phased in during the first months of martial law have eased the struggle slightly. Many private farmers, offered more money for their produce, now dispatch more food to city markets. The lengthy queues that used to wind along the streets have largely vanished. Because of a good harvest, some staple foods are plentiful. But others are in short supply. The national diet has been depleted by the Western economic sanctions slapped on the country. Deprived of traditional U.S. feed supplies, the Polish poultry industry has all but collapsed, making chicken a rare commodity and bringing a tenfold rise in the price of eggs. Supplies of fish and meat have also fallen sharply. As well, Poland’s shortage of foreign currency, in part due to the freeze on Western credits, has severely curbed food imports. Consumer goods, too, are in short supply, forcing people to buy on the black market at crippling prices or, in the case of clothing and shoes, search among the shoddy goods on the shelves of government stores.

Plummeted: Price levels pose a severe problem for the Polish shopper, whose purchasing power has plummeted in tandem with a dramatic 25-per-cent slide in the country’s gross national product over the past three years. Currently, the average wage is 12,000 zlotys ($185) per month, 50-per-cent higher than two years ago. But in the same period prices have doubled as the government brought them in line with real production costs (in the past, consumer goods, services and housing—as in other Communist societies—were heavily subsidized by the state). “Even with two salaries in the family, I can barely make ends meet,” says Henryk Kosinski, a printer whose wife, a sales clerk, used to be able to save at least half her wages.

The Kosinskis have abandoned their dream of buying a new car. The cheapest local model is the tiny Fiat Polski, which costs more than 200,000 zlotys ($21,000), at least for the five years the government estimates it will take for Poland to return to its 19781979 level of income. Some city dwellers make up their cash shortages by moonlighting, others by dealing on the black market.

Still, there are reasons for economic optimism. Government aides claim that the nose dive in industrial output that began in 1980 has slowed to a more “acceptable” pace: a five-per-cent drop in productivity compared with the 15-per-

cent plunges in the two previous crisistorn years.

Stefan Hatt, spokesman for the government’s planning commission, says this year’s industrial decline was worst among businesses that relied on the West for raw materials and semifinished products: chemicals, electronics and textiles. In contrast, resource industries, Poland’s big revenue earners, performed better. Coal production, for one, is running at 209 million tonnes this year, compared to 179 million tonnes in 1981, and the goverment predicts a two-per-cent overall rise in the GNP for 1983.

But such marginal advances toward the regime’s target of wiping out its $25-billion foreign debt have been possible only as a result of the government’s stringent control of most facets of the nation’s existence. The authori-

ties’ iron resolution has been evident wherever demonstrators appeared on the streets, and all the time a secret war has been waged against the myriad Solidarity underground cells. The military regime passed draconian antiparasite laws last October. Those regulations allow the government to force Poles who have not worked for 90 days or more to explain to the police how they are managing to support themselves. If the reply is unsatisfactory, the authorities can jail the offender or sentence him to heavy construction work in remote parts of the country. While the government claims that the law is intended for use only against black marketeers and criminals, it can also be invoked to get rid of the regime’s political opponents. The law will likely remain in force, according to Jaruzelski, “to regulate the transition.”

Now, at least, the nation has the time

to reflect on the extraordinary dramas in its fortunes during the 28 months since Solidarity first arose to challenge Communist orthodoxy. Observers who have witnessed the events are struck by a startling similarity between those activities and the student-worker protests that came close to toppling former French president Charles de Gaulle in 1968. The scales of the two uprisings were different, as were the motives of the revolutionaries and the systems under attack. But both demonstrated the fragility of apparently unassailable governments—and the ultimate resilience of the bureaucratic machine.

In France, 1968 is now a historical footnote. Poland’s ordeal only continues. While government spokesman Urban rails against “the indifference of the Polish people, their refusal to take part in public life and their tendency to

wait and see,” the national mood of caution is understandable. Lamentowicz, for one, fears that the regime’s next moves may mark the start of a new phase in its plans to re-establish total control over the lives of its citizens. “All I can see is repression shifting gear,” he says. “The first aim of martial law was to nail the worker to his bench. Now, they may think it’s time to lean on minds.” He believes that the country’s intellectuals and the members of the organized dissident movement are particularly at risk.

But there is little doubt that Poland will eventually recover—although the process may take five to 10 years. Nor is there any doubt that the Polish people will rise again to tear at the seams of an insensitive system imposed on them by an unfeeling regime behind the yellow sandstone walls of the Kremlin.

Sue Masterman