As exhilarating as the events in Poland are, we should never forget that they did not follow a rise in Polish activism but an exhaustion of it.
Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev made a calm, considered decision when he gave his blessing to Polish Communist moves to legalize the Solidarity union movement and then allow it to form a coalition government. Now we need to understand his thinking or we will continue to be surprised in the future.
Soviet thinking begins with an understanding of a very simple fact: Satellite states don't have the value that they used to. An East European buffer zone would be vital to stem an invasion from the West, but there is not the slightest danger of that today. Moscow has very comfortable and profitable relations with neutrals like Austria and Finland--and even with West Germany. By contrast, satellites like Poland and Hungary are a political headache and the source of lower-quality goods than those received from the West.
The Soviet leaders are not fools, and they have drawn the logical conclusion. In principle they would be delighted if Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and even East Germany could be turned into countries that are as little a political problem as West Germany, Austria and Finland and as valuable as economic partners.
Three fears have tended to restrain the Soviet leaders:
--They have been concerned that Poland in particular would not be like an Austria--that the Poles would start agitating for the territory taken by the Soviet Union 50 years ago this week in the Hitler-Stalin pact and that their politics would take an ugly anti-Soviet turn. The Soviet leaders are aware of the large Polish community in the United States. They fear that the United States would line up with Poland in any Soviet-Polish conflict, and that Soviet-American relations would worsen.
--Soviet leaders have been concerned that the disintegration of the Warsaw Pact would lead to instability in Europe. Europe was fractured by two devastating wars in the first half of this century, followed by peace for the last 45 years. At some level the Soviets--and we--have to have an emotional fear that a lessening of the dominant Soviet and American role on the Continent will somehow pull out the linchpin of stability.
--While Soviet leaders have liked to use Eastern Europe as a place for economic experiments, they have sometimes feared that dangerous innovations would spread to the Soviet Union. Gorbachev has few such fears. His big concern is that the Soviet people don't view him as weak and not in charge of events.
Given these considerations, a Solidarity prime minister serving for four years under a Polish Communist president is an ideal situation for the Soviet Union. With Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski in the presidency, Solidarity will think twice before venturing into sensitive foreign-policy concerns. The timing of the changes even ensures that there will not be trouble over the anniversary of the Hitler-Stalin pact that was more directly harmful to Poland than to the Baltic states. Poland will introduce a radical market reform and the Soviet Union can watch how it works.
Some very unsophisticated American observers think that the Polish events will destabilize the non-Russian Soviet republics. The opposite is true. The Ukrainians and the Belorussians--two of the biggest and most important of the Soviet ethnic groups--will feel an even greater tie to Moscow as a protector of the lands they received from Poland in 1939.
What is most important for us to understand, however, is that the logic of Soviet thinking does not end with Poland. If the Soviet Union doesn't want the political and economic worries of satellites in Eastern Europe, the very last thing it desires is the problem of propping up Communist regimes in England, France and Italy. Gorbachev wouldn't take Western Europe as a gift, and he knows full well that he has no need for a huge army that threatens Western Europe. He is absolutely determined to reduce that army.
The only major source of instability in Europe is East Germany. Either indirectly (through emigration through Hungary) or directly, the Berlin Wall is on its way down. But this will not be enough to save East Germany from fundamental change. Gorbachev has surely thought through this question (the head of the international department of the Central Committee is a leading specialist on Germany) and has accepted the implications. The question is not whether East Germany and West Germany start coming together, but how fast and with what kind of intermediate steps.
In a year or two, we will be saying again, "Who could have thought . . . ?" But it would be nice if we could start thinking about these inevitables beforehand instead of always being surprised.