The sign was like a greeting to an old friend: “Hang in there Mikhail,” proclaimed the banner in the Polish capital of Warsaw. For Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who last week brought his message of perestroika— economic and political reform—to Poland, that sentiment was testimony to widespread hope that his ideas will bring radical reform to Soviet Bloc nations. And in troubled Poland, the most openly unstable of the seven Warsaw Pact countries, the sixday visit provided Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski’s regime with the opportunity to align itself with the Soviet leader. Gorbachev, accompanied by his wife, Raisa, proved more than accommodating. In a television interview, he publicly endorsed Jaruzelski, telling Poles, “You are very lucky to have such a man at this complicated stage of Polish history—a man of huge intellectual capabilities, who loves his country.” That clearly discouraged those Poles who had expressed hope that Gorbachev’s visit would hasten change in their economically depressed country. At the same time, even dissidents applauded a public declaration by Gorbachev that stressed “the sovereign rights” of Poland and renounced any Soviet claim to “absolute truth” on the way that Communist nations should order their lives. Said Lech Walesa, leader of the banned Solidarity trade
union movement: “I pay homage to him for being brave enough to mention this.”
Abroad, NATO spokesmen spurned another Gorbachev initiative in Poland: a proposal for an all-European conference on arms reduction and an offer to reduce Soviet fighter-plane strength in Eastern Europe if NATO agreed to remove some F-16s from Europe. NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner, speaking in Spain last week, urged Gorbachev to instead provide impetus to long-stalled East-West ne-
gotiations in Vienna on the reduction of conventional weapons in Europe.
The Warsaw Pact, Eastern Europe’s counterpart to NATO, responded in a communiqué from a weekend summit meeting in Warsaw, where Gorbachev and Jaruzelski were joined by the leaders of East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. In a proposal apparently aimed at breaking the Vienna stalemate, they called for renewed East-West talks on conventional forces and a separate meeting on tactical nuclear weapons. The communiqué made no reference to Gorbachev’s idea for Europe-only arms talks, excluding NATO members Canada and the United States. The pact leaders also refrained from public comment on divisive internal issues, including a bitter dispute in I which Hungary accuses neighbor5 ing Romania of mistreating ethnie Hungarians.
Meanwhile, Gorbachev disappointed many Poles by not openly acknowledging Soviet responsibility for a Second World War massacre of Polish officers—traditionally a sensitive point in Soviet-Polish relations. Said one worker: “It is good to talk about friendship—but he should have said more.” Gorbachev’s appeals for Poles to support their own leader also appeared to be futile. “Jaruzelski has been promising us reforms for the past five years,” said retired Polish air force pilot Brunon Datkewicz in the port city of Szczecin. Added Datkewicz, who had been waiting in a food lineup for two hours: “What have we got to show for it? Less and less.” For his part, Walesa said that he was disappointed because Gorbachev did not address rising demands for “pluralism”—the democrat-
ic competition among ideas and candidates for public office. Said Walesa: “What is really needed for people who want freedom today is not talk about history or such things but real pluralism.”
In fact, throughout his visit, the Soviet leader was largely shielded from Polish reality—and from many events that may have provided opposition groups with an opportunity to press their case. And Gorbachev did not reply when he was asked at a meeting with about 300 Polish academics to “appraise” such past policies and behavior as the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia 20 years ago.
Still, the Soviet leader did make some public relations gains. In a gesture aimed at the 95 per cent of Poland’s 37 million people who are Roman Catholics, Gorbachev and his wife made a 20-minute visit to Krakow’s 14th-century Church of the Assumption. That gesture appeared to encourage some Polish churchmen. Said Krakow’s Auxiliary Bishop Jan Szkodon: “I think this visit has a symbolic meaning. It seems to show a new attitude toward the church.”
In Krakow, Gorbachev also addressed a Polish-Soviet youth rally, delivering a spirited endorsement of the Communist system. The speech was clearly aimed at Poles—among whom fewer than one per cent of those under 35 have joined the party. “We have transformed backward Russia from top to bottom,” he declared, “and all that thanks to socialism.” For many Poles—and for others who have lived for four decades within the Soviet sphere in Eastern Europe—that dominating theme during the Soviet leader’s visit overshadowed the promise of perestroika.
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.