The meeting around a green table between representatives of Poland's ruling party and of Solidarity, scheduled for February 6, is a historic occasion. It marks a serious new attempt to include the opposition as an integral part of the political system in Eastern Europe. The sweeping reforms introduced in Gorbachev's Soviet Union and various countries under its influence, although forced by social tensions, have all been initiated--at least so far--from above. Poland, ever since its workers uprising of 1970, has been an exception to this rule. There the pace of events has largely been dictated by the posture of the working class. The movement from below reached its climax in the summer of 1980 with the birth of Solidarity and was driven underground in the winter of the following year by Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's military coup. Thus, it has taken more than seven years of political stalemate and economic stagnation for the two sides to resume a dialogue.
The decision to do so was not reached easily. The plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party last month was quite dramatic. At a secret session during the night of January 17, Jaruzelski had to resort to the threat of resignation (his own, his Prime Minister's and that of the two fellow generals in charge of defense and the police) to force the Central Committee to accept a resolution promising, among other things, "labor pluralism": the prompt legal recognition of Solidarity in the event of an agreement. Lech Walesa, so far, has met with less resistance to the idea of negotiations, but discontent among his followers is likely to grow should he pledge to keep what is suspected to be his part of the bargain--the preservation of "social peace" in the factories and the acceptance of some form of electoral alliance with the Communist Party within a "front of national reconciliation."
All these maneuvers are taking place against the background of rising economic discontent. An official report just published confirms that the per capita gross national product is still 13 percent lower than it was ten years ago and that inflation last year exceeded 60 percent, with worker incomes far outstripping the supply of consumer goods. The economic crisis at once renders the talks more difficult and makes them a necessity. The government needs popular support to give its reforms a chance. Solidarity fears a bloody explosion that it could not control. Even if both sides are thus driven toward a deal, the range of issues on which they must agree covers almost everything--the proposed cure for the crisis, the future shape of society and the political price to be paid by the government in exchange for economic concessions to the union. As they move closer to their "historic compromise," we are bound to see strains, breaks and even realignments on both sides.
At best, the round table is only the beginning of a long and complicated process. Nonetheless, the search for an understanding between ruling reformers and the movement from below is a momentous occasion for Eastern Europe.