TURMOIL ON TOP : A World of Changing Leaders, Struggling Governments and Strange Bedfellows : Poland: A Triumph of Moderation

Tad Szulc is a veteran U.S. correspondent based in Washington

For a couple of years, it was the traditional state of affairs: Poles on each side being maximalists in politics, as in war and romance, demanding everything, offering nothing, eschewing compromise and practicing the "politics of the worst," hoping the other side would commit catastrophic errors even if the whole society suffered.

Forty years of communism had created hostilities so deep that the nation seemed doomed to suicidal stalemate.

No longer. Sunday, June 4, 1989, is the date that will live in the history of postwar communism. That was the day when the first relatively free Polish elections in 42 years were held--with Solidarity candidates demolishing what was left of the ruling Communist Party's credibility. That same day, across the globe on Tien An Men Square, Chinese army tanks and machine guns made a blood bath of the rising pro-democracy movement .

In historical perspective, those Polish and Chinese events must be seen as the dawn of a new era.

For Poland, the election results mark the end of four decades of unquestioned communist domination.

For China, the Beijing massacre represents a tragic chapter in the struggle for political freedoms, in the same sense Solidarity's brutal but not bloody 1981 suppression by the Polish army was part of the change culminating in its electoral triumph 7 1/2 years later. China is by no means a freeze-frame.

Poland attained what seemed wholly implausible even in the mid-1980s: the peaceful emergence of a pluralistic society and a full range of political liberties in a communist-controlled nation. In the Soviet Union, reform forces are strong in the new Legislature but the Communist Party itself is not yet being challenged. Poland is an unprecedented phenomenon in Marxist-Leninist annals.

Yet the evolution away from communism should not come as a total surprise, either to those who have watched the unfolding Polish situation or to those who were not wedded to the conventional Washington wisdom that gradual change toward freedom in a communist system is an impossible oxymoron.

My experiences in Poland as far back as 1987 (two years is a long time in the breathless political metamorphosis) bear out the proposition that elementary logic had to bring together the communist regime and the democratic opposition if the nation were to be saved from utter collapse, economic and social. The best brains in both camps had come, however reluctantly, to recognize this reality.

In 1987 at Gdansk, Lech Walesa, the chief of the then-illegal but enormously popular Solidarity movement, was already predicting, "Sooner or later, we shall meet with Jaruzelski on the way to reform." Though the government increasingly tolerated Solidarity's activities, I was surprised that Walesa was prepared to deal with Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Communist Party chief who tried to liquidate Solidarity and who kept Walesa virtually imprisoned for nearly two years.

Walesa, moreover, expressed no bitterness; in fact, he seemed to have considerable respect for Jaruzelski, certainly not regarding him--unlike many other Poles--as a Soviet stooge. Seeing Walesa for the first time since Solidarity's heyday in 1981, he seemed much more mature politically, more realistic and more moderate than I had expected a victim of Jaruzelski's regime to be.

He acknowledged that he had lost control of Solidarity's "radical wing" during confrontations with the government; he implied that moderation was the only way to keep Poland a viable country.

A separate conversation with historian Bronislaw Geremek, Walesa's most trusted political strategist (now Solidarity's Parliamentary leader in the Sejm, the lower house), convinced me that the Polish opposition had begun to think compromise was the bridge toward a peaceful fade-out of communist supremacy.

Next, I had a two-hour private chat in Warsaw with the general himself. I had first talked to Jaruzelski in 1982, six months after he imposed martial law in order to crush Solidarity. He began by telling me, "We have all changed and we have all learned a lot," and he had fairly kind words for what he called "the moderate opposition."

Other conversations with members of Jaruzelski's entourage further suggested that some form of cooperation among rival groups was recognized as vital, and that the young generation in the Communist Party favored it as well.

But, as usually occurs in such situations, moderates on both sides--Walesa and Geremek among the opposition, Jaruzelski and his allies in the fragile regime--had to persuade their respective constituencies that compromise was necessary.

Opposition moderates had to maneuver carefully to retain the support of confrontation-minded foes of the regime, "the children of Solidarity." Some young activists abhored any dealing with the government and even suspected the Roman Catholic Church of collaborationism.

Jaruzelski had support from Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev who, unlike Leonid I. Brezhnev, approved of Polish reform alongside his own perestroika , but the general had to fight Polish hard-liners who consistently sabotaged reform.

Widespread wildcat industrial strikes during 1988--deplored by the regime, also deplored by Walesa who risked his popularity by insisting that workers return to their jobs--loosened the national paralysis. In the past, strikes triggered new confrontations; this time they helped pave the way to an understanding. A new phase opened early this year as regime leaders and moderate opposition leaders finally determined to meet halfway.

The rest is history. The government and the moderate opposition spent long weeks negotiating--itself a giant leap forward--to produce amazing breakthroughs. Jaruzelski and his principal advisers agreed to re-legalize Solidarity and to allow a free press, in exchange for opposition commitment not to challenge the nominal sway of the Communist Party and to support its presidential candidate.

Even more spectacular was the agreement on direct elections for 35% of seats in the Sejm (Solidarity agreed to let the Communists have a strong majority) and for all 100 seats in a Senate that was being restored as the upper house for the first time since World War II.

When I saw Geremek in Washington just before the June elections, we reminisced about our Warsaw chats two years earlier, marveling at how quickly things had progressed. But he did not expect the landslide that awarded Solidarity and other opponents 99 Senate seats and all the Sejm seats allotted to them.

Stunning as it was to see these results, with Jaruzelski and Walesa together on a bench at the Sejm inaugural session (inasmuch as neither ran for Parliament), Solidarity's next gesture of statesmanship was even more extraordinary.

Aware that a combination of opposition radicals and communist hard-liners had the power to prevent Jaruzelski's election to the presidency, Geremek and Senate Speaker Andrzej Stelmachowski manipulated the parliamentary voting to assure his victory on July 19--by one ballot. Incredibly, Solidarity handed power to the man who once tried to destroy it, because the general was the most promising choice and his defeat could unravel the entire compromise.

The next historic chapter has begun. With a $39-billion foreign debt, shattered infrastructure and runaway inflation, Poles must now decide how to run the country, realizing that Western aid cannot perform miracles. Jaruzelski would like the opposition to join a coalition government, another Polish communist "first." As of last week Solidarity flatly refused, holding out for a full-fledged Solidarity government with its own premier. Maximalizing may not be entirely dead. Yet the Poles have crossed a Rubicon: For the first time in half a century, destiny is in their own hands.

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