Poland’s rising tide of conformity

Peter Lewis April 19 1982

Poland’s rising tide of conformity

Peter Lewis April 19 1982

Poland’s rising tide of conformity


Peter Lewis

The warning was unmistakable. As the clock nudged 10:15 p.m. in an intimate and exclusive Warsaw restaurant, the lights suddenly flashed on like floodlights on a film set, and uniformed waiters fanned out to each table to present bills. Nobody needed to be told why it was advisable to pay up and leave at the signal. In less than an hour, the curfew slapped on Warsaw when martial law was introduced on a winter night four months ago would come into effect. Diners and staff who failed to make it home in time were liable to be picked up by an army patrol and held

overnight—or longer.

Last week, as Polish chief Gen. Wojciech Jar-

uzelski flew to Prague to brief Czech President Gustav Husak on the situation in his country—he paid similar calls on Moscow and East Berlin in March—he was able to cite the silence that falls on Poland every night with the 11 o’clock curfew as proof that his army had brought the rebellious Poles to heel. The Polish spring has not brought with it the hoped-for uprising against martial law—which Solidarity’s clandestine branch had promised in its slogan: “The winter is yours, spring is ours.” Instead, there is a heavyhearted realization among Poles that their march to change has been halted. An associate professor at Warsaw University commented that the curtain may not have come down for good. But, he added, it seems final enough to make even an optimist think of emigrating.

As the country daily slips further into “normalization,” the memory of its 16-month flirtation with revolution receding against a tide of conformity, it is hard to find a single Pole who still thinks that Lech Walesa and his Solidarity trade union are destined to rise again. “They had their moment and flubbed it,” says Warsaw journalist Henry Tomasyk who, though critical of Solidarity’s “mistakes” in the final two weeks before the Dec. 13 crackdown, finds martial law much worse. “Poland

has found stability under Jaruzelski’s guns,” he says. “It’s the stability you feel lying on the stone floor of a jail.” Life has slowed down to an orderly routine centred on work, family concerns and the nightly curfew. Still, food and other consumer goods are in

greater supply than in the days before martial law because of improved distribution, stricter rationing and stiff price increases introduced on Feb. 1 (the price hikes put an immediate stop to hoarding). By raising prices and cracking down on profiteers, the authorities have hobbled the black market, but there is still a roaring trade in some scarce items and in foreign currency. The black-market rate for the dollar (always a barometer of crisis here) currently hovers around 350 zlotys, compared with 700 in December.

Most people now tend to hold their

tongues with strangers but not out of fear for their safety—Jaruzel-

ski’s policemen could not build a jail huge enough to contain Poles who harbor “counterrevolutionary” thoughts. Instead, months of social ferment followed by the catharsis of martial law have drained people’s emotions, causing them to withdraw into their private lives. When the retreat is politically motivated—as it undoubtedly is for great numbers —Poles call the process “internal emigration.” But public life—or what passes for it—has also become drab. Resttaurants are largely empty as a result of the ^curfew. Though film houses and theatres start their programs early enough to give audiences time to get home,

few people seem to have the heart for cultural enlightenment. Elsewhere, censored newspapers are boring and uninformative, and TV and radio, under the leaden hand of party ideologue Stefan Oslzowski, have become a national joke.

Those who feel most cheated by events are the young, who see a door being slammed on their future. The vast majority, depressed and listless, see no point in resisting military rule. The few who do quickly confront the military’s tight grip. It appears likely that Poland’s drive for freedom, so magnificent and seemingly irresistible a year ago, will fizzle in the months ahead into what an American newsman stationed in Warsaw called the usual East European game of cops-and-dissidents.

It is difficult to grasp how the experiment with freedom, the sharpest challenge to Soviet power in Eastern Europe since Stalin’s postwar empire was established, could have collapsed so suddenly and completely. One eminent Polish sociologist explains that the desire of ordinary Poles for stability provides the clearest answer. After staring chaos, deprivation and conflict in the face for more than a year, he says, the Polish people decided that they could pass up the revolution if that was to be the price of

Poland's factories and streets are now so quiet that military rule could be lifted without the risk of trouble

Still, Poles do not generally feel they have been cast back into the grim 1950s, a time when government control of society and the climate of coercion was far more absolute. The current military presence in Warsaw is light. Roadblocks have all but vanished from the streets—as have armored cars and tanks—but soldiers and police with machine pistols slung on their backs still pace the chief thoroughfares. Warsaw’s first shock over the trappings of martial law has long given way to indifference: when people pass their gun-toting, youthful keepers on the sidewalk they simply stare through them.

The main guessing game in the Polish capital now is to predict when martial law will end. Poland’s factories and streets are so quiet that military rule could probably be lifted immediately without the leadership running any risk of trouble. But party officials expect the soldiers to stay around until the end of the year—if only to give the authorities time to make economic reforms stick and to solve the problem of what to do with interned Solidarity members. Military rule, officials add, could also serve as a buffer against possible unrest once the full impact of February’s price increases sinks in with Polish households. Up to now, an elaborate compensation scheme has cushioned people from the shock of having to pay a full 20th of the average monthly wage for a kilo of pork.

The leadership also fears that industrial trouble may erupt when a combination of Western economic sanctions and internal reforms aimed at making Polish concerns more competitive leads to increased unemployment. Zdzislaw Sadowski, the mastermind behind the party’s drive to strengthen and streamline the economy, estimated last week that as many as 300,000 workers could soon find themselves unemployed because of austerity measures. Other officials gloomily predict that the lack of hard currency to buy raw materials and spare parts will force 60 big Polish factories to close before the summer.

Indeed, as a result of the freeze on political life, attention in official circles is now focused almost entirely on the country’s economic plight. When Western banks agreed in Frankfurt last week to allow Poland to reschedule $2.4 billion in debts that Warsaw had been unable to pay last year, the Polish media were ecstatic. Commentators saw the decision, which saved Poland from defaulting, as a sign that the West’s opposition to martial law was beginning to weaken. But to most Poles the decision meant nothing. A hotel manager, for one, muttered that the rescheduling was of concern only to Jaruzelski and the bankers. It would not, he said sadly, make him a free man.