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Squaring Off in Poland

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Another wave of strikes has forced Poland’s military regime to focus again on keeping the sullen, restive nation in line. As of yesterday, it was succeeding, sometimes with water cannon and other weapons and sometimes with bribes in the form of slightly bigger paychecks.

But there was no movement toward the “political solutions” that Lech Walesa, leader of the outlawed union, Solidarity, rightly says must come before Poland’s workers will help their communist leaders clean up the nation’s economic mess.

A lot is riding on Poland’s ability to work its way out of a $39-billion national debt and an inflation rate of more than 60%. If Poles and their leaders can find common ground, Poland’s economy may come back to life without violence and without so much as an appearance of Soviet intervention. But if any hope for improvement has to come at gunpoint, the gulf between Eastern and Western Europe will just get wider.

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By shutting down coal mines and shipyards, Polish workers have been speaking to their leaders with the only voice the regime seems to hear. Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski’s government has responded by calling an emergency meeting of the party’s Central Committee this weekend and a special session of Parliament next Wednesday. In both cases the only items on the agenda are new measures to improve the economy.

That is better than nothing, but it falls far short of the dialogue that Walesa insists is essential to making Polish workers do more than go through the motions of helping carry through any new economic plan. Because one demand of workers taking part in this month’s strikes is government recognition of Solidarity, it is no wonder that Jaruzelski hesitates to entertain the idea of talks that would cover both politics and economics.

But Jaruzelski must also take into account that Walesa is not the only labor leader complaining about the “louts” in high office who have turned Poles into “socialist cripples.” Some officials of communist-led trade unions at the 100 biggest shops in Warsaw also complained about the “clumsiness” of economic reforms and warned that they might sanction a general strike of their own.

He also must weigh the severe need for capital in Poland and the fact that he can borrow more money only by demonstrating that he can turn his country around economically. He has not even begun to make that case.

Unless Poland’s workers are granted a bigger stake in the system, they will not make the sacrifices necessary to increase Polish production and start erasing the country’s foreign debt.

In the next few days Jaruzelski would do well to think about his dilemma in the context of the direction that will produce the smallest sacrifices, because he does not have the luxury of thinking about gains.

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From almost any perspective, the easiest sacrifice for him to make would be a surrender to Poland’s people of some of his power to call the shots in return for their willingness to work harder for a brighter future. The alternative is a sullen and restive future with shipyard workers fighting off police in Gdansk and miners threatening to hold out in deep shafts as long as they remain alive.

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