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A New Deal in Poland?


For the Poles the decree of September 11, 1986, seemed one of the most astonishing events in recent history. No one had expected it. All of Poland’s political prisoners, the official announcement said, would be released within five days. Zbigniew Bujak, the head of Solidarity’s Provisional Coordinating Committee (TKK), who only three months earlier had been arrested after eluding the police for nearly five years; Leszek Moczulski, the fiery leader of the small nationalistic KPN (Confederation of Independent Poland); Czeslaw Bielecki, the eloquent writer and architect who had been weakened by a hunger strike 1—all would now regain their freedom along with hundreds of others. In December 1981, Solidarity was caught off guard when Jaruzelski took advantage of the union’s self-confidence and, in a matter of hours, put the entire country under martial law and about five thousand Solidarity activists in prison. Now, when the General (as he is commonly referred to in Poland) seemed to concede one of Solidarity’s principal demands, its leaders were again taken unawares. For nearly three weeks they had little to say.

There were good reasons for the silence. Since martial law was imposed the government had decreed two amnesties, one in 1983 and one a year later. They were not exactly fraudulent, since a number of political prisoners were actually released. They were, however, accompanied by conditions, such as the requirement that everyone released swear he would not take part in “antistate” activities; and after each amnesty, the police rearrested some of the former offenders, and filled the jails with new ones. The language of the so-called Clemency Law, passed on July 17 of this year, was even more vague than previous decrees. The continuing campaign in the press against Solidarity, and especially against its “antisocialist” leaders and advisers,2 offered little hope that Jaruzelski was about to release his opponents from jail. Solidarity had consistently said that if all political prisoners were set free it was ready for “dialogue” and for discussion of “national reconciliation” (much to the dismay of its more radical spinoff groups such as “Fighting Solidarity”3 ). Jaruzelski spoke of “normalization”—a code word for bringing the opposition to heel.

Yet here in September was Interior Minister Kiszczak on Polish television, calmly announcing that some of the government’s bitterest enemies would be freed in the interests of “humaneness” and “national accord.” While the law, he said, would continue to deal harshly with those engaged in “espionage, terror, sabotage, or treason,” the authorities would show “maximum patience, calm, and good will” toward those acting “against the state and public order.” It would use “preventive” measures rather than “penal repressions.”^4 On the same day about three thousand Poles involved in the underground were visited by officials of the Ministry of Interior who gently warned them that their activities would cause harm to their “common motherland” no less than to themselves—an adroit step designed to demonstrate that the regime knew exactly who was active in the underground and that it could be generous toward them.

There was more to come. The day after the decree, Silwester Zawadzki, a member of Poland’s highest government body, the Council of State, published an article in which he noted that a new “understanding” should not exclude “persons from the realistically oriented bodies of former Solidarity.”5 A few days later the General himself declared that “no one in our country is or will be discriminated against for his or her convictions,”6 a statement that then was repeated in the official press. Government representatives started discreet talks with the Church and with various intellectuals regarding the formation of a “Social Consultative Council,” a group that would presumably advise Jaruzelski on important political and economic matters. Finally, some conservative intellectuals, mostly lay Catholics, were given permission to publish a journal, Res-Publica, which in the past had come out clandestinely and whose editors had long attempted to get permission to publish legally.7 There was talk about the appearance of other independent publications.

Was this a new deal, then? Or a wily tactic? How would the opposition, and above all Solidarity, respond? Such questions were on everyone’s mind at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, where I was attending a conference on the history of the Jews in prepartition Poland. One prominent writer said Jaruzelski was trying to match, if not surpass, Gorbachev’s proclaimed policy of glasnost—openness. The Polish press, he said, had for many years published articles unthinkable in any other country of the Soviet bloc—but in recent months the censors have been more lax than ever.

It is absolutely mind boggling. Internal Party directives—which I have seen—tell Party members to seek out opposition leaders and promise them practically anything if they agree to end their activities. Editors of newspapers and magazines have been ordered to stop “blacklisting” certain writers. The other day the Zycie Warszawy [a daily paper] had a remarkable piece on how the party has failed to attract any following among young people.8 The official publishing houses are issuing books that couldn’t have been published last year. The amnesty may prove a flash in the pan after all, but there is more going on than just the release of political prisoners.

A historian attending the conference spoke of the bitter controversies taking place within Solidarity. “The General must be rubbing his hands with glee,” he added darkly.

In Warsaw a few days later, I was invited to a private apartment where a group of about forty historians, sociologists, economists, and lawyers met to discuss “the new situation in Poland.”9 One of the most impressive talks took the form of a list of provocative questions.

Why was Solidarity so poorly prepared for the amnesty, and what other rabbits was Jaruzelski likely to pull out of his hat? In view of its failure to stage strikes or large protests during the past few years, didn’t Solidarity still tend to exaggerate its strength? Could Jaruzelski’s moves mark the beginning of a process of liberalization of the Polish political system? (As for “democratization,” which is to say basic changes in the system, the speaker added wryly that there is not a ghost of a chance.) Will Jaruzelski succeed in driving a wedge between workers and intellectuals, thus breaking the alliance created by the Workers Social Self-Defense Committee (KSS/KOR) ten years ago and firmly maintained to this day? Will he, for instance, try to seduce intellectuals with such tempting concessions as new journals, which would be of little relevance to the workers? Would Solidarity not be wise, perhaps, to curtail its activities, even to begin dismantling its “underground structures,” so as to allow other groups to emerge that might be more effective? On the other hand, how could one expect Solidarity’s Provisional Coordinating Committee, which has a committed following of perhaps tens of thousands of people, to pass into obscurity? Wouldn’t this mean not only the end of Solidarity as such but also the gradual eclipse of other underground institutions, such as the vigorous underground press? Still, wouldn’t it be realistic to assume that if a good many new pressure groups are allowed to emerge, Solidarity will sooner or later expire?10


In the weeks that followed, after hearing dozens of different speculations about what the General was doing, and what the opposition should do, I was struck by how much agreement there was among the Solidarity leaders and how much they themselves had changed. A few years ago it was common in opposition circles to view Jaruzelski and his ekipa (team) as a collection of incompetent fools, without any political imagination, lacking longrange programs, and skillful only at repression. No longer. The man who spoke in the Warsaw apartment, for instance, talked of Jaruzelski’s “political acumen”—a judgment no one present challenged. The historian Bronislaw Geremek went further, describing the present ekipa as “the most able and best informed of all that have ruled Poland since the end of the war.” When I talked with Lech Walesa in Gdansk, he agreed: “I must admit that in the past I had a very low opinion of Jaruzelski and the people around him. But having gotten to know them, I’ve changed my mind. They are first-class professionals [klasa], not to be underrated.”

Of course this perception does not imply a change of heart: the Solidarity leaders dislike and distrust the regime as much as ever. Clearly, however, the opposition now recognizes both the power and the shrewdness of the man it has to deal with. How, then, do the Solidarity leaders explain Jaruzelski’s peace offensive? They don’t fully accept the common view in the West that he had three main aims: to induce the United States to lift the remaining economic sanctions and Western countries to grant Poland new loans and credits; to cause further schisms within the opposition; and to persuade his perenially potential “partner,” the Catholic Church, to abandon its support of the opposition and reach a lasting modus vivendi with the regime.

To be sure, few people I spoke to would discount these motives. The government certainly wants an end to sanctions and it needs new credits. The Solidarity leaders do not underestimate Jaruzelski’s desire—and ability—to encourage divisions among the opposition (“the better,” as Jacek Kuron put it, “to destroy us”). As “David Warszawski” (the pseudonym of one of the most prolific and incisive contributors to the underground press) told me: “If some of the intellectuals yield to the temptation of joining the Social Consultative Council Jaruzelski wants to set up—without any firm guarantee that it will be more than a façde—or some other equally spurious body, some of our members will quit in disgust and others will join more radical groups. Either result will obviously be to Jaruzelski’s advantage.”

Nor is a new “deal” with the Church to be ruled out. The local churches are still the refuge of many elements of the opposition, but the Church is eager to bring the Pope back to Poland, while Jaruzelski is almost indecently anxious to be received at the Vatican. During the past few years the government has virtually lifted its ban on the construction of new churches and presbyteries, and has granted permission to publish a number of new, Church-affiliated journals. All this might encourage the Church authorities to silence a number of “radical” (that is, pro-Solidarity) priests, and to allow some of its representatives to join the new council.

Moreover, as some of my informants pointed out, the government is not necessarily wrong in counting on a degree of hostility among some Church dignitaries either toward Solidarity as a whole, or toward specific groups and leaders within it. Father Alojzy Orszulik, the press spokesman for the episcopate (the Church hierarchy), has made no secret of his loathing for KOR. Cardinal Glemp himself has complained that Solidarity has been infiltrated by “Trotskyites” and other “non-Catholic elements.”11 Only last August the first issue of the Paris-based semiofficial organ of the episcopate, Znaki Czasu (“Signs of the Times”), edited by the conservative historian Andrzej Micewski, published an article attacking Solidarity, and specifically Bronislaw Geremek and Tadeusz Mazowiecki (a liberal Catholic) for their “leftist” inclinations.12 The regime will try to exploit such sentiments.

  1. 1

    See his article written from prison in The New York Review (March 27, 1986).

  2. 2

    Of Solidarity’s leaders and advisers, it is precisely those identified with moderate, rather than with radical or “fundamentalist,” positions that have been singled out for the most harassment and abuse in the official press. Chief among them is Bronislaw Geremek, a distinguished medieval historian, and since the strikes of the summer of 1980 one of the principal spokesmen for Solidarity. Unlike others, he has not been permitted to travel abroad, or even beyond the city limits. He has also been deprived of his membership in the Polish Academy of Sciences. In December 1981, Geremek’s Jewish origin served his detractors with an excuse (if one was needed) for anti-Semitic attacks. They ceased, but otherwise the harassment continues.

  3. 3

    A group established first in Wroclaw in 1982, and now with chapters in other cities as well. One of its Poznan members told me that she expected her group to expand if Solidarity enters into any negotiations with the authorities, for “we are opposed to any agreement and any talk whatsoever with this regime.”

  4. 5

    Trybuna Ludu (September 12, 1986).

  5. 6

    Rzeczpospolita, Warsaw (September 17, 1986).

  6. 7

    One of its editors, Pawel Spiewak, told me that the purpose of the new publication would be “independence equally from the Church and from the state.” Its general approach, he said, would be “conservative-liberal”—”liberal” in the sense of the Manchester school—”though its pages will be open to all nonextremist points of view.”

    While most opposition members are in favor of trying to establish new open publications, including Res-Publica, there is considerable ill will toward its editor in chief, Marcin Król, for having tried to negotiate with the authorities while the jails were still filled with political prisoners, and for doing so in secrecy. Spiewak said to me this was a “grievous mistake.”

  7. 8

    This piece appeared in Zycie Warszawy, Warsaw (September 26, 1986).

  8. 9

    Discussion groups of this type, nominally illegal yet tolerated by the regime, have been part of Poland’s political life for a long time. A few days later, a church in Warsaw’s Old City was the scene of a lively discussion on the subject, “Is a Compromise Possible?” Three thousand people attended, among them no doubt more than a few secret police agents.

  9. 10

    How large is Solidarity now? All of my informants agreed that as an organized force it has drastically shrunk. According to Jan Józef Lipski, for instance—one of the founders of KOR (see Timothy Garton Ash’s review of his book on KOR, NYR, October 9, 1986), the dues-paying members at Ursus tractor plant in Warsaw make up about 10 percent of the work force. In Kraków, I was told, a 1984 survey showed a membership of 6 percent in local factories, “which by now is no doubt smaller.” Most Poles should be counted among the “silent majority” that despises the regime yet is unwilling to participate in any underground activity. The prestige of Solidarity and its impact on the thinking of most Poles, however, is strong wherever one goes. Even those critical of Solidarity expressed their admiration for it.

    It would, however, be a mistake to equate the political opposition with Solidarity. “Fighting Solidarity,” for instance, has its own, far more radical, program. In the past few years a number of other groups, mostly consisting of young people, have sprung up, opposed (as some of their members told me) to Solidarity’s “monopolistic tendencies.” One of these groups, “Freedom and Peace,” whose members refuse to serve in the army either on grounds of conscientious objection or because they are required to sign an oath swearing allegiance to the Soviet Union and other “fraternal socialist countries,” is bitterly critical not only of Solidarity but also of the Church for their lack of support. “The Church is horrified at the thought that any Pole would refuse to serve in his nation’s army,” one of them told me. Father Jankowski, whose Gdansk church has offered protection and support for Walesa, I was told by another member, refused to intercede in the case of Wojciech Jankowski, a member of Freedom and Peace sentenced in December 1985 to three and a half years of imprisonment. (He has now been released under the terms of the amnesty.) Other groups reject political activity, directing their efforts, in the words of one of their members, at “individual self-expression and growth, free of the shackles of any organized institutions.” The strength of these groups should not be exaggerated, either, but they are all—to judge from my observations—engagingly idealistic, serious, and dedicated.

  10. 11

    See Kultura, Paris (in Polish), No. 5 (May 1984), p. 98.

  11. 12

    Znaki Czasu, Paris, No. 1 (August 1986).

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