From the archives: Poland Confronts Crucial Issue as It Hosts President

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

WARSAW -- As President Bush launches a busy two-day schedule in Poland today, he will find a country, perhaps somewhat bewilderingly, locked in the toils of one of the most important questions facing the reforming Communist nations of Eastern Europe.

Poland, the perennial pioneer in political experiment, is trying to determine if there is a future for liberal Communists in the changing Communist world. The answer, as evidence in Poland so far suggests, is no.

This is a conclusion that could have dangerous and far-reaching consequences here and in Hungary--the next stop on the presidential trip--as well as in the Soviet Bloc’s “gang of four” conservative states: East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria.

This issue is sharply and dramatically etched in the current impasse over the choice of a new president for Poland--a jolt in the political machinery that forced, among its lesser consequences, a hurried reprinting of official programs for the Bush visit, produced on the assumption that Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski would be president of the republic rather than merely president of the Council of State.

When those programs were printed, in optimistic anticipation of the most important state visit here in more than a decade, Jaruzelski’s presidency seemed almost a sure thing.

But the stormy politics of reform within the Polish Communist alliance, and the sweeping success of the opposition Solidarity movement in the June elections, have thrown delicately negotiated arrangements into a whirlwind. At this point, no one can say just where the bits will come to earth.

Same Issues in Hungary

The outcome of the presidential question, and the further political arrangements that result from it, could be vital for Poland in the coming months. This cliff-hanger drama will be closely watched, especially by Hungarian political figures, both Communist and opposition, who are facing the same issues as they prepare for their own free elections next year. And for the rest of the East Bloc, the Polish example will be the one to avoid, at all possible costs.

What the Polish example has shown, to the shock-horror of the East European Communist world, is that virtually any Communist, no matter how liberal, is doomed in a free election with a non-Communist opponent.

That rule applies only by extension to Jaruzelski, the 66-year-old Communist Party leader, who did not stand for election to either the Polish Sejm (lower house of Parliament) or the newly constituted Senate. But it applied almost universally to those Communists who did stand for election, including 33 of the most liberal figures in the party. Those candidates, by and large the architects of the Communist party’s rapprochement with Solidarity, lost even though they were unopposed on the ballots.

Jaruzelski occupies a unique and curious role in Polish politics. A career military officer of stern and austere bearing, he is widely assailed by the public for imposing martial law on the country in December, 1981, two months after he was appointed party leader at the height of the Solidarity crisis. Jaruzelski and his supporters within the party have always maintained that the martial-law declaration saved the country from a Soviet invasion.

Acts of Desperation

The public has not bought the argument, nor has it been won over by Jaruzelski’s clear moves in the last two years to liberalize the party, nor do the broad spectrum of Poles see him as the behind-the-scenes architect of the agreements that brought Solidarity’s return to the open political arena. Jaruzelski’s moves toward liberalization, they say, were acts of desperation, and they want to see him gone from the scene.

The accusation of desperation has some validity, as the Polish economy has steadily worsened during Jaruzelski’s reign as party chief, and the slide is becoming even more precipitous as Bush begins his visit. But moderates on the opposition side have long argued that the only way to change Poland politically and economically is through a gradual process. And, until recently, that gradualism was thought to depend on Jaruzelski as a stabilizing force. In his fights within his own party and his negotiations with Solidarity, Jaruzelski has displayed a pragmatism that was instrumental in bringing both sides together and could be crucial in keeping them together.

Before the elections, at the conclusion of the historic “round-table” accords, Solidarity and the government agreed (although it was not a part of the formal documents) that Jaruzelski would be chosen president and would relinquish the post of Communist Party leader.

It was an important bargain, with something for both sides. For Solidarity, it established the principle, for the first time in the Communist world, that the top post in the government carrying significant executive power and the leadership of the party should be held separately. For Jaruzelski, it would be the culmination of a career and, possibly, the chance for an honored place in Polish history.

All Bets are Off

And, because the pre-election agreements called for the Communists and their allied parties to have a 65% margin in the Sejm, Jaruzelski’s election was to be assured.

Now, however, all bets are off.

The first casualty of the elections--and the prospect, in four more years, of fully free elections--has been that once-reliable feature of Communist politics: party discipline.

Two key allies of the Communists, the Peasants Party, with 76 votes, and the Democratic Party, with 27, met and emerged, after long argument, with no endorsement of Jaruzelski. Both these parties, with historical roots going back to pre-World War II Poland, seemed eager to distance themselves from the Communists, clearly with an eye to a political future for themselves. Some members of the Peasants Party have openly declared themselves as Solidarity allies. (Solidarity’s 259 votes in the Sejm and Senate would be enough to put Jaruzelski over the top, but Solidarity says its supporters would never forgive it for voting for him.)

On June 30, Jaruzelski announced he would not be a candidate for the presidency, although the party immediately urged him to reconsider his decision. By the accounts of most party insiders, he is doing so.

Jaruzelski, in his withdrawal announcement, suggested his closest lieutenant, Gen. Czeslaw Kiszczak, as his replacement. Kiszczak, who led the government side in the negotiations with Solidarity, has met with less than full-throated support from the party. Indeed, the official party organs over the last 10 days have been uniformly campaigning for Jaruzelski.

Unofficial Endorsement

The reason for this seems to be that the party establishment finds Interior Minister Kiszczak (who actually got Solidarity leader Lech Walesa’s unofficial endorsement) too liberal--even more liberal than Jaruzelski, perhaps too easily prone to selling out old-line party interests in favor of his own ambitions.

In the midst of the deadlock on the party side, and to some degree because of it, Solidarity theorist Adam Michnik has proposed that Solidarity give its support for a Communist president in exchange for running the government--that is, choosing the prime minister and the Cabinet in charge of the day-to-day management of the state.

The proposal was first regarded as extreme, and described by other Solidarity leaders as “one man’s opinion,” but the idea seems to have gained currency in recent days.

The proposal, however, is fraught with danger, since many observers here, both opposition and government, say that Poland’s economic situation is extremely perilous. There is widespread fear that growing shortages of food--meat has become scarce and expensive, and the government has ordered emergency imports from France and Germany--could bring about strikes and public disturbances.

Moderates in Solidarity say that if the situation were to spin out of control, with Solidarity in charge of the government, a Communist president--his hand forced by party conservatives--could impose emergency measures that could topple the whole fragile construction of political reform in Poland.

Hope for Massive U.S. Aid

Both Solidarity and the government, with their own notions of self-preservation closely entwined with Poland’s, are hoping that President Bush will pledge massive infusions of cash to keep the situation stable.

Solidarity’s leaders, in their discussions with Bush, are certain to put forward some variation of the Michnik proposal and what they hope will be a tempting bargain: With a pledge of a serious, and expensive, economic commitment from the West, Solidarity will attempt to put together the first non-Communist government in Eastern Europe. With such a commitment, Solidarity would likely accept Jaruzelski as president, and urge the public to do likewise.

But this is no doubt a far too dicey piece of business to expect an American president to gamble on, and realists on each side doubt that a hoped-for “Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe” will be forthcoming until the political situation comes back down to earth and the key players get on with business.