CHRIS WOOD April 17 1989



CHRIS WOOD April 17 1989

The promise of spring had been dashed so often before that when Poland's frozen political landscape finally began to thaw last week, the reaction was oddly muted. Just 19 months ago, Communist party strongman Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski had dismissed calls for a dialogue with Poland’s banned trade union Solidarity as “suicidal.” But last week, Jaruzelski not only agreed to restore Solidarity’s legal status, he also conceded a central role for the union in the first free elections the Communists have held since they assumed power in 1944. “For the first time, we have talked to each other using the force of arguments and not arguments of force,” declared Solidarity’s leader, Lech Walesa. “It bodes well for the future.” But only a handful of admirers cheered the 45-year-old Walesa as he walked through an unseasonably cold rain Wednesday to sign an accord enshrining Jaruzelski’s concessions. “Some people waved, some smiled,” Walesa observed later. “But I read doubt in their eyes.”

Despite any doubts, the changes agreed to by Poland’s 45-year-old Communist regime were truly unprecedented. Never before in an Eastern European country under the thrall of Soviet rule had the promise of open elections held out the possibility that Communist politicians might one day find themselves voted out of power. Said interior minister Gen. Czeslaw Kiszczak, who led the talks on behalf of the Polish government: “We are headed for a state of socialist parliamentary democracy.” At the same time, the accord implicitly acknowledged that the party’s management of Poland’s debt-ridden and unproductive economy has failed. In its place, the accord promised to establish free market reforms unparalleled under Communist rule in Poland. Such sweeping admissions—heresy anywhere within the Soviet Bloc until recently—testified to the undiminished vigor of glasnost and perestroika, the reforms initiated in 1985 by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. And last week’s Warsaw accord could well put added pressure on other East European governments to pick up the pace of reforms. Declared Kiszczak: “Reform is making our country a testing ground for Socialist countries.”

Chaos: Even the Soviet Union itself has not ventured so far down the path to liberalization. Moscow allows a lesser degree of free-market economics than appears possible under the new Polish accord and it permits no independent unions. As of the weekend, the Kremlin had not officially reacted to the Polish agreement. But Walesa, plainly mindful of past Soviet interventions in Eastern Europe, offered to go to Moscow “not to agitate or irritate but to seek understanding for the Polish reforms.”

Most Poles—as well as Polish immigrants in Canada—kept a firm check on their hopes (page 32). There were no mass demonstrations or fluttering red-and-white banners on Warsaw streets like those that greeted Solidarity’s brief flowering nine years ago (page 30). In fact, for some Poles the restoration of democracy took second place to sports. Television stations fielded numerous calls asking whether coverage of the signing of the accord in a neoclassical 18th-century palace in Warsaw would interfere with the broadcast of a soccer match. The mood of wary skepticism was understandable. Janusz Reykowski, a reformist member of the Politburo and a co-chairman of the political reform subcommittee of the round table, conceded in a Maclean’s interview that the agreement means Poland is in a period of chaos (page 33). “Everything people are accustomed to is challenged,” said Reykowski, a professor of psychology who worked briefly at Montreal’s McGill University in 1968. “This is a system of chaos—chaos in the economy, in politics, in ideology, in everything.”

In addition, Poles have long memories of past repression. In 1981, Jaruzelski’s government responded to demands for greater freedom with martial law and the imprisonment of Solidarity’s leaders, including Walesa. Sporadic attempts at reform since then have been followed by fresh suppressions. Meanwhile, Poland’s 38 million citizens have watched their living standard decay to close to Third World levels. Meat, rationed since 1979, is in short supply in most areas. Lineups for bread and milk are everyday trials. Good shoes and television sets are unavailable luxuries, and inflation is expected to exceed 100 per cent this year.

Anger: Both Polish and foreign economists have said that the reforms needed to reverse Poland’s decline will prove acutely painful. And last week, Solidarity promised to help keep a lid on popular unrest while the government tackles the economy. It was a commitment that staked Walesa’s personal prestige on the success of the government’s program. If economic restructuring fails to bring prosperity, observers said, Walesa will face the anger of an estimated one million Solidarity members. “If the economy is not put under control,” predicted Adam Bromke, a former professor of politics at McMaster University in Hamilton, now living in Warsaw, “Walesa will find himself in a very difficult situation.”

Last week, however, it was clear that the government had given far more ground than it gained from Solidarity. The Communist party made two key political concessions. It will relinquish its statutory majority in the 460-member Sejm—currently the single-chamber parliament—which it has always dominated. The reforms will also create a new 102-seat Senate with the power to veto decisions taken in the Sejm, which will become the lower chamber. Open elections for seats in the new upper house will be held in June. At the same time, elections for the lower chamber will guarantee the opposition 35 per cent of the seats. The Communist party, which has kept 53 per cent of Sejm seats for itself until now, will be reduced to 38 per cent but is expected to retain power with the support of two smaller pro-Communist conservative parties, which will hold the remaining 27 per cent. The party will lose even its limited protection in the Sejm by the time a following vote is held in 1993.

At the same time, Solidarity secured its own legal standing and a government promise to restore the jobs of union activists barred since 1981. It also won the right to publish a daily newspaper and to promote its point of view in the national media. And, in a measure plainly designed to cushion the impact of economic reforms, the government promised wage indexing to compensate workers for up to 80 per cent of the rate of future inflation.

Censor: Still, Poland’s reforms have decided limits. The agreement explicitly forbids the establishment of political parties—although Poles will be able to form “associations” and political “clubs.” Moreover, although the government promised a greater measure of independence for the courts, it retained the right to censor the media. And most commentators last week predicted that Jaruzelski—currently first secretary of the Polish Communist party—would win a vote of both houses of parliament to the newly created position of president. The office, which carries a six-year term, will give the 65-year-old Jaruzelski sweeping powers to issue decrees with the force of law and to dissolve parliament. Further evidence that Poland’s ruling Communists are not about to cede power gracefully could be found in the assertion of government negotiator Reykowski that the Communist party “is not a party that competes in elections and hands over power depending on their results.”

Despite those shortcomings, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater hailed the signing of the agreement as “a great day for the Polish people and for freedom.” And in Ottawa, External Affairs Minister Joe Clark said that he was “encouraged” by the Polish government’s conciliatory stance. As recently as a year ago, few analysts would have predicted such a breakthrough. Last May, in fact, Jaruzelski ordered troops to break up a strike at a steel mill near Kraków, and police rounded up and jailed prominent Solidarity leaders. In July, however, an official state visit by a smiling Mikhail Gorbachev signalled the first change in the political wind. During six carefully scripted days, Gorbachev visited St. Mary’s Church in Kraków, a focal point of Poland’s fervently nationalistic Catholicism, and toured a shipyard at Szczecin, a former Solidarity stronghold. “People asked me what was really going on in the Soviet Union,” Gorbachev said later. “I told them we wanted people to feel all right in their own country.”

Protest: That many Poles felt otherwise was soon evident. Last August, coal miners in Silesia walked off the job to protest wage cutbacks, and the strikes soon spread. Within days, 100,000 workers were on strike and the shutdown of coal exports had cost the beleaguered Polish treasury $13.6 million. But the crisis forced a surprising proposal from interior minister Kiszczak. On Aug. 26, Kiszczak invited Walesa to join Communist, church and other opposition representatives at a "round table” to discuss ways to end the country’s protracted political stalemate.

Heated: Many Solidarity members reacted skeptically. It took Walesa three hours of heated debate to persuade his union’s strike committee at the giant Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk—where he works as an electrician—to accept Kiszczak’s offer. Even negotiations to launch the talks proceeded at a snail’s pace. Then, in October, the government announced that the money-losing Lenin Shipyard would be closed within three years. “They pretend to talk,” said Walesa, “while at the same time they liquidate the shipyard.” Within days, however, the process of reconciliation received support from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. On her first official visit to Poland, she told Jaruzelski that prosperity could only be achieved if Poland’s citizens were given “freedom of expression, freedom of association [and] the right to form free and independent trade unions.”

The breakthrough finally took place during a meeting of the Communist party’s Central Committee in January. After hours of heated debate, Jaruzelski—supported by Kiszczak and other reformists—threatened to resign unless party conservatives dropped their opposition to talks with Solidarity. The conservatives backed down, and on Feb. 6 talks began around a cherry-wood table in Warsaw.

For many Poles, however, last week’s accord appeared to offer few immediate benefits. In Warsaw, the reaction of the Chmielewski family seemed to represent the general mood. Karol, 43, an electrician, and his librarian wife, Janina, 41, share a three-room apartment with their 14-year-old son, Marek, and Janina’s mother, Maria Kneeht, 63. “The accord is a big moral satisfaction,” observed Kneeht, “but I do not expect miracles on the economy.” Added family head Karol: “It is all crap. Workers must pay again for the crisis.”

But surveys conducted by Solidarity and the government’s own Public Opinion Polling Centre show that the accord’s key provisions do have broad support. In February, 78 per cent of those polled by the official agency supported Solidarity’s legalization. A month later, 85 per cent of Warsaw workers polled by the trade union said that they wanted full freedom of choice in elections.

Meanwhile, the Polish reforms will undergo intense examination in other East European capitals. They are almost certain to find their most sympathetic reception in Hungary, where the ruling Socialist Workers’ Party in February approved in principle the creation of independent, non-Communist political parties. Leaders elsewhere in the Soviet Bloc are more likely to regard the Warsaw accord as dangerously concessionary. In particular, the rulers of Czechoslovakia—where police in January arrested more than 800 proreform demonstrators—and East Germany will find little to applaud.

Radical: However, in the neighboring Baltic Soviet republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, the Polish reforms appeared certain to fuel ongoing independence movements. Last week, leading Estonian officials published a program that, if approved, would amount to something very close to secession from the Soviet Union by Jan. 1, 1991. The radical proposal demanded the creation of Estonian citizenship and an independent Estonian foreign policy.

For Poland, however, a great deal of work will be needed before the political reforms lead to economic renewal. The nation’s export earnings do not provide enough hard currency to cover interest payments on its $47-billion foreign debt—$2.5 billion of that amount owed to the Canadian government and banks. As a result, few foreign lenders have been willing to provide the investment money that Polish industry badly needs to modernize its outdated equipment. The Communist party, meanwhile, has resisted the urging of international economists to relax its stultifying grip on the appointment of senior managers. But in the sweeping mood of change, the party agreed last week to give up its system of nomenklatura, under which the party controls the most important jobs. At the same time, government spokesmen affirmed their intention to carry on with reforms first unveiled in December that effectively opened the Polish economy to private investment by both foreign and domestic entrepreneurs.

Gamble: Free enterprise, however, offers only the opportunity to prosper, not a guarantee of prosperity. And whether Poland’s long-suffering citizenry will seize the opening represented by last week’s groundbreaking developments remains very much a gambler’s proposition. Still, it is a gamble that, for the first time, finds the leaders of both the country’s major political factions on the same side. And if Walesa and Jaruzelski are right, Poles may yet find that they have won a victory worth wholehearted celebration.