Poland and the West

Xan Smiley

What should the West hope for in Poland – let us say, within the next decade? Should the maintenance of a balance of fear between East and West remain the target – at the expense of the freedom of Poland? Or can the twin goals of Polish emancipation and East-West peace be achieved together? Even among liberals sympathetic to the people of East Europe, there appears now to be a consensus, buttressed by an instinctive reaction against whatever line the current American Administration may take, that popular national movements towards democratic freedom in Eastern Europe are enemies of world peace. The corollary is that Solidarity is (was?) a particularly dangerous nuisance. ‘The good news is the crackdown in Poland,’ Ian Davidson wrote in the Financial Times. ‘General Jaruzelski’s intervention, however deplorable in many ways, nevertheless offers the last faint hope for the reform movement in Poland.’

At the same time it is often conceded that for real stability to be achieved, nations, especially those like Poland where nationalist fires burn so brightly, must consent to their governors. The head of Solidarity may have been chopped off, but the body will twitch for a long time, and may soon start kicking again. (‘The winter is for Jaruzelski; the spring will be ours,’ say the latest Solidarity slogans.) The General may decide that the body is more likely to be quiescent if reunited with the head. Yet the head refuses to be put back in place until the body, too, is given its old freedom of movement. Present result: paralysis.

If, however, Jaruzelski or his successors do manage to forge a rapprochement with Polish labour, so that it gradually regains its rights up to the level, say, of summer 1981, then the whole process will surely start again. Once again, Solidarity will argue that Poland can function effectively only with a wider measure of democracy and independence. Perhaps they are right: would not a stable, prosperous, contented Poland on the edge of the Soviet orbit (still within the Warsaw Pact, but ideologically and economically more of a mixture) be better for Russian security than a truculent, economically burdensome, politically repressed Poland? Optimistic gradualists argue that the USSR might come to see that it could be in its own interest to rewrite the Yalta Treaty, or at least to fulfil those of its provisions – namely, free and fair elections – that were so flagrantly abused in 1947. Such a loosening of the tie between the USSR and its most difficult satellite would be to everyone’s advantage, the argument runs. But would the Russians ever see it this way? That is the real question for the West.

The three basic demands of the EEC, the USA and the Vatican – the lifting of martial law; the release of detainees; the resumption of dialogue between the Government, the Church and Solidarity – are vague and short-term. Of course, the West wishes East-West stability to be maintained; of course, the West wants the Polish economy to recover enough for its billions of dollars to be paid back; but, with idealistic sights set at their lowest, it must be assumed that, for those two targets to be met, the Poles need to achieve a measure of economic reform which can be effected only by an accompanying degree of political reform. Beyond that, questions of Poland’s evolution into a truer democracy or of its place as a Soviet satellite can temporarily, for the sake of finding a lowest common denominator in the formulation of Western policy, be discarded.

The next question that arises is whether martial law is the way to achieve even those moderate aims. In other words, should the West want martial law to fail or to succeed? For that is the choice. Conor Cruise O’Brien puts it bluntly: ‘Should the West do all in its power to make Polish martial law fail, even if the most probable consequence of its failure is Russian military occupation of Poland?’ His answer, like that of most commentators in the centre of the Western political spectrum, is clearly ‘no’. Yet already Britain and the USA have imposed economic reprisals designed to force Poland to lift martial law – to make it ‘fail’ if certain conditions are not met. The alternative to General Jaruzelski, it is now increasingly argued, can only be worse for the Poles. A struggle is taking place within the upper echelons of the Polish United Workers’ Party (the official name of the Communist Party) which could easily result in Jaruzelski’s replacement by a much tougher customer: Stefan Olszowski, for instance. So ‘liberal’ Communists such as Mieczyslaw Rakowski, an articulate deputy premier, and Jan Szczepanski, a ‘liberal’ member of the Sejm, are sent to the West to explain that Jaruzelski is a nice guy putting Solidarity’s ‘extremists’ into cold storage merely in order to stave off the ‘worse evil’ of Russian intervention.

It is probably true that Jaruzelski’s own days are numbered if he fails to bring the Poles back to order and to work. It is also probably true that, if he fails, his place would go to the hard men around Olszowski. But a series of questions needs to be answered. First, is Jaruzelski in fact a reformist forced only temporarily by circumstances into being ‘cruel to be kind’? Secondly, if the West gives the most charitable answer to the never-ending ‘Puppet or Patriot’ poser, can anything be achieved simply by lending him more money and supplies as before, in the hope that military discipline will somehow turn the economy round? Thirdly, if martial law fails – or, to put it another way, if the General is forced to abandon it – would that necessarily provoke direct intervention by Moscow, and, if it did, would that necessarily be worse than what the Poles are experiencing already?

None of these questions is easily answered. We simply cannot tell if Jaruzelski declared martial law because a Russian gun was pointed at his head. There is precious little evidence either way. Moscow certainly could have prevented it, even if it is unclear whether it instigated it. Given the integration of the Warsaw Pact’s military high command, Moscow’s acquiescence amounts to a heavy weight of responsibility. On the other hand, Jaruzelski’s subsequent policies in no way suggest a desire for real political reform. He says he has ‘suspended’ Solidarity, yet he has clearly set out to smash it. Anyone who pays allegiance to it is persecuted. It is often impossible, for instance, for Solidarity supporters to get work.

Secondly, it is completely unrealistic to expect that giving the General the ‘benefit of the doubt’, in the form of debt rescheduling and new loans, will put the economy in order, however much discipline may improve. Strikes, by the way, were responsible in 1981 for only the tiniest drop in productivity – an hour in the year per person, or 0.05 per cent of total output. The recent price rises were badly needed and the presence of bayonets was probably needed to enforce them. But far more fundamental is reform in agriculture and in factory management, which can come about only with the co-operation of the Poles and of those leaders whom they respect: the Solidarity internees and Lech Walesa. Besides, much of the Western money, if released, would go to propping up the same grandiose industrial projects that Edward Gierek wastefully embarked upon a decade ago. Expensive new technology from the West has been used (and would be used again) as a substitute for reform, not as a vehicle for it. For those Poles happiest to ‘make martial law work’, the old Party bureaucracy, economic reform will come a poor second to their own need to recover the privileges that have been humiliatingly whittled away during the last year and a half. In other words, there is little evidence that more credit for Poland – without very tight conditions – is likely to assist reforms.

Thirdly, and more contentiously, it is not a certainty that the lifting (or failure) of martial law would bring a Soviet or Warsaw Pact invasion. It is debatable whether the suppression of the Czech ‘spring’ in 1968 was heavier than today’s clampdown in Poland. The Russians are no less loath now than they were before martial law to intervene physically in Poland. Apart from the international odium, the certain imposition of additional economic sanctions would stretch an already creaking Soviet economy to its limits. In human terms, that would mean not only hungry and restless Poles, but angrier and longer queues for bread and meat in the USSR itself. The spectre of widespead unrest within the Russian empire would seriously be raised in the Kremlin.

If, however, pressure from the West and acquiesence on the part of the USSR were to result in the lifting of martial law, the West would have to put to the Polish leadership an economic package it could not refuse: a sort of Marshall Plan. Economic aid of this dimension would have to be tied to much stricter provisions than hitherto – similar to those which the International Monetary Fund lays down when attempting to bail out developing countries. (The IMF might, indeed, be able to play a large part in the package.) The provisions would include, despite the recurrent hostility of Polish governments, a commitment to invest in the private farmers, who own 80 per cent of the land and produce most of the food. There would also have to be moves to allow some privatisation in transport, in light industry and service industries. Such ideas have already been outlined by Solidarity.

The USSR would charge that massive tied aid of this kind amounted to interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. But this returns us to the delicate area which has already been touched upon: is the USSR prepared to loosen its economic (and, in probable consequence, political) grip over a satellite country, in return for the stabilising consent of an otherwise dangerously disgruntled population? History since 1917 has suggested that it isn’t. For the Kremlin, security has always come first. It might in this sense help if the Western package included a reiteration of the political commitments made by Willy Brandt when he launched his Ostpolitik in 1970. The Oder-Neisse line would again be recognised as the rightful western boundary of Poland. The division of Germany would not be contested, nor would the existence of Soviet military facilities in Poland.

The Eastern bloc is heavily subsidised by the Soviet Union – not the other way round, as most East Europeans in Poland and elsewhere tend to assume. It has often been explained that the Soviets protect their East European allies with an economic ‘umbrella’ made of gold, gas and oil. Gas is available for exploitation in the USSR in mammoth quantities: hence the determination to export it to Western Europe, although gas pipelines, unlike the relatively simple oil pipelines, are very expensive and difficult to build. The rest of the umbrella is full of holes, however, which increases the importance to the Soviets of gas exports. Although still the world’s largest producer of oil, the USSR has recently been selling fast, on falling markets, in its search for foreign currency. It has already told its European allies that they must expect less oil this year, and at higher prices. Gold and timber are being sold at a similar pace. In early February, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) announced that by mid-1981 the USSR had withdrawn five billion dollars from its deposits of 8.6 billion dollars in the West – its fastest withdrawal ever. The Russian need to pay for imports with hard currency is clearly an indication that its economy is severely pressed.

Economic reprisals, first against Poland, then – if need be – against the Soviet Union as well, would therefore come at a time when the Kremlin is most vulnerable to pressure, additionally so in view of the headaches being caused by the problem of the Brezhnev succession. Most of the American sanctions against Poland and the Soviet Union, too hastily announced after the declaration of martial law, are feeble in effect, giving an impression of more bark than bite. Most of those on the British list, announced in Parliament on 3 February, were similar pinpricks. In both cases, however, there is a single critical item that is very powerful: the withholding of credit. No more Western credit will go to Poland until martial law is lifted. Trade can continue, provided that the Polish Government pays hard cash, which it hasn’t got. No European country has yet withheld credits to the USSR itself, but that they might do so remains a powerful threat.

It has been embarrassingly evident in Western circles that American and European perceptions of sanctions have differed: the Americans have a limited economic interest in Eastern Europe, except in terms of grain sales, while Europe, especially West Germany, has a very large export market in machinery and manufactured goods. The withholding of American parts for such a monumental European concern as the Siberian-European gas pipeline hurts Europe badly while giving the USA little pain at all. But the joint withholding of credits is a tremendous stick with which to beat Jaruzelski and his government. There are other reprisals, mainly in the form of tariffs, which could be applied against the Soviet Union at little cost to the Western alliance. The fundamental factor in the equation is that, in economic terms, the Soviet bloc needs the West more than vice versa. The most powerful threat of all is, of course, that of a US grain embargo. If President Reagan were to put it into effect, this time the USA would have to pay off its own farmers and devise some arm-twisting mechanism (or bribe) to prevent the Argentinians and Canadians from making up the difference. It is a mighty stick to be held in reserve.

Sanctions, it is rightly said in argument against them, will hurt the Poles – the very people the West is supposed to be helping. In the short term, that is undeniably true. The West can soften the blow only by sending food and medicine to the most needy Poles through Church channels, as it is now doing. The response of charities in the West has been large, and the EEC has ended its supplies of subsidised foods to the Polish Government and instead earmarked $35 million for aid to be distributed through the Polish Church. When set against Third World hunger, Polish need is not as pressing as it is often said to be, though the miseries of queuing are obvious. The chief cause of the food shortages is political. Much of the food needed by the people is there, but is held back by resentful farmers or distributed unfairly and inefficiently. Moreover, all the Western correspondents in Poland whom I have contacted report widespread support for Reagan’s sanctions, often seen in the West as vindictive. The determination to cling on to hopes that political reform will be forced upon Jaruzelski as a way out of his impasse is so strong that many Poles, I am told, ‘can go a long way on fresh air sandwiches yet’. As for a possible declaration of default against Poland by the Western banks, there is little point in this, although the possibility of it happening cannot be ruled out. If further credits are not forthcoming, it would make little difference to the Poles whether or not they were formally declared bankrupt.

The crucial factor, often ignored by those in the West who argue for a continuation of détente and for a cautious encouragement of reform in Eastern Europe, is the sequence in which stick and carrot should be used. There is no point in offering the carrot before the stick. At this stage there are no grounds for giving Jaruzelski the benefit of the doubt, nor for swallowing the honey-flavoured arguments of ‘liberal’ ambassadors such as Rakowski. To do so would be interpreted by the Polish generals and by the Kremlin as an indication that martial law had been accepted as the ‘lesser evil’. Reform could then be shelved ‘pending negotiations between the regime and Solidarity’ – negotiations which the regime would no longer have to take seriously. The stick must come first: no more Western credit. An unsolicited carrot, offered in the hope that moral outrage and cajolery will prove the best tactics against the Eastern bloc, would be regarded in the East as a blessing on Jaruzelski to ‘do his best’ within the present martial law framework. But it must again be emphasised that the carrot has to be very big if face is to be saved in the East: the economic package must be coherent as well as huge. It is nonetheless still possible that both Jaruzelski and the Kremlin will consider economic squalor and political repression the safer option. They can be expected to change their minds only if a real prize is offered.

If these Western carrots and sticks prevail upon the USSR and Jaruzelski to allow Solidarity back into the arena, could the movement be restrained from again demanding full power? That is the most difficult question of all. Is it possible for the Polish Communist Party to retain the ‘leading role’ in society, as the Constitution insists, given that the Party will remain hated and discredited, however much liberal revisionists try to revive it? Is it possible, as Neal Ascherson puts it, for Solidarity to ‘take most of the substance of power away from the party and state bureaucracy but to leave them with the form’? In the words of Jacek Kuron, the driving force behind KOR, the Solidarity think-tank: ‘Can a revolution ever be self-limiting?’ A few days before his arrest in November, Kuron reaffirmed his belief that Solidarity had modestly to acknowledge Poland’s ‘geopolitical situation’ (Poland’s code phrase for admitting that it is in the Soviet sphere of influence): in other words, it must always be publicly accepted that the USSR shall enjoy military facilities in Poland and transit rights through to East Germany. But, he argued, one day the Soviet Union must come to admit that only by granting Poland freedoms that were unthinkable a few years ago can it ever have a stable Polish neighbour. Polish stability, not Polish subservience, said Kuron, is what the Russians must be led to desire.