Between August 1980 and December 1981, the Polish crisis had an important international dimension. Since the imposition of martial law on December 13, 1981, however, the political situation in Poland has drastically changed. One might argue that it is now merely the internal concern of that country or, at most, of the Soviet empire. If this be so, Poland must no longer be a matter of particular concern for American foreign policy.

This position is not shared by all commentators. Some of them continue to believe that General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s policy should be judged on moral or ideological grounds. The situation in Poland should be weighed against the Final Act of the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (1975), which states that respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms is an "essential factor for peace, justice and well-being necessary to ensure the development of friendly relations and cooperation among all states."

Others reject such a "sentimental" approach and assert Poland’s international significance on more pragmatic grounds. In particular, they emphasize the economic and geopolitical consequences of the Polish crisis. Poland owes the West billions of dollars, in itself a serious international problem. Moreover, successive crises in Central and Eastern Europe unavoidably produce East-West tension and threaten the political and military stability of the continent as a whole.

In order to argue the need for a special American foreign policy toward Poland, however, it is not enough to agree that the Polish crisis has some international relevance. One has also to agree that, despite the anti-American rhetoric and policy of General Jaruzelski and his government, the majority of Poles hope for an American influence on Poland’s destiny. But even this does not define the degree and the form required of such an influence. A definition can only emerge from a careful analysis of recent developments in Poland as well as from a reexamination of American (or generally, Western) strategic interests and options with respect to Central and Eastern Europe.


Western discussion about Poland reflects to some extent the confusion prevailing in Poland itself. The repressions under martial law shocked public opinion all over the world, and yet the underlying intentions of the new Polish military rulers seem to be still a matter of debate. Is General Jaruzelski a puppet or a patriot? Did he crush Solidarity on Moscow’s order or to save Poland from a worse fate? Is he a convinced communist, a military bureaucrat or a nationalist sacrificing himself for his motherland? Does he represent a hard-line position within the ruling establishment in Poland or a conciliatory one? Will his policy lead to controlled economic reforms as in Hungary since 1964, or to an escalation of police repression as in Czechoslovakia after 1968?

More relevant for the United States is whether the West should help Jaruzelski, with the aim of encouraging a system similar to that introduced in Hungary by its Communist leader, János Kádár. Proponents of such a policy argue that while Solidarity is unacceptable to the Soviets, the Kádár model does at least give East European countries the chance to attain a degree of independence which the Soviets find acceptable. For some observers it follows that the West must seek the "Kádárization" rather than the "neutralization" of Eastern Europe. But the differences between the political and economic situation of Hungary after 1956 and Poland after 1981 make it difficult, or even impossible, for Jaruzelski to copy the policy of Kádár, no matter how attractive this may seem.

The Soviet invasion of Hungary destroyed all achievements of a brief revolution (less than three months), and all its leaders were assassinated or imprisoned; all resistance was crushed. In Poland, where the social movement enjoyed 16 months of legal existence, the domestic repression has shown itself unable to put an end to underground Solidarity and other independent activities. Moreover, in 1956 Kádár, who himself had been a victim of the Stalinist terror, could credibly pretend to renew a Hungarian communist system then only 12 years old; this was also true at that time of Wladyslaw Gomulka’s regime in Poland. But in 1981, after first Gomulka’s and then Edward Gierek’s failure, the Polish communist system itself, almost 40 years old, was generally considered by Poles to be so corrupt and inefficient that the very idea of its "renewal" appeared an absurdity. Finally, and most importantly, the Hungarian economy, though physically damaged by the Soviet intervention, was neither indebted nor disorganized, and the healthy state of the Soviet bloc countries’ economies at that time made effective emergency aid from them possible. Polish economic misery, by contrast, is due to long-lasting systemic deficiencies and mismanagement. Poland now finds itself heavily indebted to and dependent upon the West, while the other COMECON countries, themselves in a difficult situation, cannot provide a level of assistance comparable to that which Hungary received in 1956.

What is at issue in the Western discussion of Poland is the freedom of maneuver available to ruling elites of the European countries of the Soviet bloc. Historically, Soviet policy toward Eastern Europe has been remarkably flexible. Neither freedom of religion nor private agriculture nor the right to develop cultural and economic relations with the West were generously granted by Moscow, but the Poles succeeded in obtaining these concessions from the Soviet Union through a hard and painful process of bargaining. This bargaining consisted of a broad public pressure on the Polish Communist rulers, but also of certain efforts on the part of these rulers to negotiate compromises with Moscow. Such efforts were also successfully undertaken by Hungarians after 1964.

The exact limits of Soviet tolerance and flexibility of course cannot be known in advance. They are, at any given moment, the result of a complex interplay of Soviet domestic and external factors. The process of bargaining is the only means to determine what can be obtained under given circumstances and at what price. The Soviet authorities prefer to negotiate and bargain with contesting Eastern Europeans rather than immediately to crush with tanks any sort of dissent. In other words, the use by Moscow of military force in Eastern Europe is a last resort.

The rulers of the countries of the Soviet bloc have some freedom of maneuver, never sharply delimited, variable but nevertheless real. We can ask, therefore, whether General Jaruzelski has any intention whatsoever of making use of this freedom to negotiate concessions from the Soviet Union.

The Polish authorities give three answers to such a question. The first, public, reply rejects the issue as irrelevant, even insulting: Poland, being allegedly a sovereign country, is tied to the Soviet Union by mutual friendship and common interests, and is grateful for Soviet help. The second answer is whispered by "well-informed" sources into the ears of Western diplomats and journalists: these sources stress the constant pressure exerted by Moscow and by domestic hard-liners who are ready to take power with Soviet blessing. They claim that it is impossible to resist this pressure more vigorously without provoking a direct intervention of the Soviet army, that is to say, a major national disaster. Different variants of this theory of Jaruzelski as the lesser of two evils are spread by unofficial channels inside Poland itself.

The third answer to the question of Jaruzelski’s political intentions is provided not by words, which in any event have been contradictory, but by his deeds during almost four years as head of state, by laws promulgated during this period, by governmental decisions concerning social life, economics, culture and education, and by the everyday practice of his power. This is what we intend to analyze.


In December 1981 and during the first months of 1982, General Jaruzelski’s domestic objectives were stated very clearly. He sought to eliminate Solidarity from the political and economic stage and simultaneously to neutralize all other manifestations of opposition. He intended to achieve an improvement in the economy. And he expected gradually to win popular support. Hence, the imposition of severe restrictions against Solidarity activists was combined with an attempt to keep alive a "dialogue" with the church and to draft the terms for a so-called national agreement. As is well known, these terms excluded any form of participatory democracy, introduced semi-compulsory membership in pro-governmental institutions (directly, or indirectly through a system of penalties and rewards) and institutionalized the arbitrariness of the state apparatus.

All this notwithstanding, the role of the party and of its ideology seemed reduced to a remarkable extent. The authorities pledged to use criteria of "national interest" as well as of economic and organizational efficiency rather than any strictly ideological ones. Constitutional amendments were adopted in order to ensure private ownership of peasants’ lands (71.4 percent of all arable land in 1983). And a promise was made that reforms would introduce certain market elements into the Polish economy.

Did General Jaruzelski and his men sincerely believe in what they were saying immediately after the imposition of martial law? Nobody knows and, from our point of view, it does not matter. For it is clear that their rhetoric was the only approach that could neutralize the church, obtain some popular support and not alienate Western creditors.

The orthodox Leninist line could hardly have been accepted at that time even by the Polish Communist Party which, since August 1980, had lost more than one third of its members and whose remaining members were passive and unreliable. Moreover, the party as an institution had lost whatever legitimacy it once had (always significantly lower than that of the church). Its claim to be the party of the working class was disavowed by the Polish workers themselves when they created their own union, Solidarity. Its claim to manage the Polish economy so as to increase the country’s strength and the welfare of its citizens was turned into an empty slogan by the disastrous results of its economic policy. And the party apparatus was shown to be a den of thieves: 12,000 members of the nomenklatura (elite), of whom 3,400 were ranking officials of the party and the state, were convicted in 1981 of squandering or stealing the public money during the ten previous years. The only role to which the Communist Party, or rather its leadership, could still pretend was that of the necessary interlocutor between the Soviets and the Polish nation.

Aware of what happened in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poles tried to avoid a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the party. But, if they feared that the party’s collapse would provoke an intervention of the Soviet army, they nevertheless did not invest it with their confidence. According to a public opinion poll carried out in late 1980 by sociologists from the Polish Academy of Sciences, the national institutions enjoying the greatest confidence were: the Catholic church (94 percent), Solidarity (90 percent), the army (89 percent), the Sejm or parliament (81 percent), and the Council of State (73 percent). Only 32 percent of the respondents declared confidence in the party.

The repressions under martial law could not restore the party’s political efficiency and make out of it an instrument for the supervision of the people. General Jaruzelski tried to transfer this role to the army, which presented itself as acting in the name of a statism apparently indifferent to Marxist-Leninist ideology. But the army lost its prestige very soon, as it became obvious that it was unable to improve the management of enterprises and the local administration, and was still less capable of reforming the economy as a whole and the state apparatus. Moreover, the self-styled statism revealed more and more of its purely repressive nature, until even those who initially believed in it saw that it represented only a new endeavor to legitimize the power of the party and state bureaucracy.

This attempt at legitimization can be illustrated by more than a hundred legislative acts adopted by the Sejm over the past four years. Many of them represent a model version of a "legislation of terror" that introduces into the "normal" legal system almost all the regulations of the martial law which was formally lifted in the summer of 1983. They include, for instance: an amendment to the constitution that gives to the Committee of the Defense of the Country the right to establish a state of emergency if the committee alone finds it appropriate; new provisions in the penal code that impose strict sanctions on all people who engage in any oppositional activities, even people who participate in meetings in private homes; a law of the Ministry of the Interior that authorizes the use of the armed forces and of live ammunition under the same conditions as those specified under the martial law decree; a so-called anti-parasite law; and a work-referral law that institutionalizes forced and compulsory labor as a means of worker discipline, political constraint and economic development. The same is true of a juvenile delinquency law that allows the punishment of young people who exercise the right to free assembly; a censorship law modified in order to reinforce strict governmental control of publications and performances; and a law on trade unions that eliminates the workers’ right to free association and collective bargaining, and transforms the only officially recognized trade union into a driving belt of the Communist Party.

In sum, the law in Poland has become openly repressive. It is widely used to justify the use of compulsory force by the state against its citizens. This legislation of terror, supported by a corresponding jurisprudence, is aimed at creating a new source of legitimacy for General Jaruzelski. People can now be persecuted not because they act directly against the party or communism, but because they violate the existing law. Dura lex sed lex. In fact, however, these laws are entirely subservient to the supreme goal of maintaining and even strengthening the power of the Communist Party apparatus, which, after some years of eclipse, is coming again to the forefront.

Among the symptoms of the "return to normalcy" (as defined by Soviet criteria), most significant is the disappearance of "men in uniform" who gradually are going back to their barracks. There are surely exceptions to this rule, the most visible being General Jaruzelski himself. Although he recently relinquished the position of prime minister, Jaruzelski retains leadership of the party. But when he travels to Moscow as first secretary, he dresses in civilian clothes. And it is Jaruzelski himself who, on several occasions, speaking to Polish Communist Party activists, has stated that the situation, while difficult, no longer requires the direct interference of the military in the conduct of the country’s affairs. Another symptom: the evolution of the official rhetoric, which refers with growing frequency to Marxism-Leninism, socialism, "the leading role of the party" and the "struggle against imperialist subversion," and in the best Stalinist style identifies all opponents with agents of Western secret services.


Jaruzelski’s economic policy is another example of the reluctance to break with the Soviet model. Immediately after December 1981, the imposition of martial law was justified by the urgent need to pull Poland out of its economic crisis. Former Deputy Prime Minister Mieczyslaw F. Rakowski, considered in the West as a spokesman for an open-minded if not liberal tendency in the Polish leadership, later denied the very reality of that crisis. Yet the drastic fall in the gross national product, which began in 1978 and was followed by an equally drastic fall in the standard of living, is only being halted, with little sign of recovery.

In 1983, the GNP in Poland was at the level of 1975, despite its first slight increase since 1978; the GNP per capita was near the level of 1973. The standard of living of the population was close to that of 1973, with the exception of peasants for whom it was closer to that of 1977-78. In 1984, these indicators were not significantly improved. The Polish foreign debt amounted at the end of 1984 to $26.8 billion and, according to some estimations, it will soon reach a level of $30 billion.

Poland’s economic crisis is due both to long-standing deficiencies of the system and to mismanagement. The main fault lies in the inefficient, over-centralized "command" economy, which disconnects supply from demand and subordinates every enterprise to the central planning organ, which in turn is subordinated to the political leadership. The crisis cannot be overcome without substantial reforms that would introduce some market elements into the public sector: this would give to enterprises an autonomy with respect to commands from above and with respect to politics and ideology as well. Reforms also have to provide incentives to the development of the private sector in agriculture, services and small-scale industries whose importance as a source of consumer goods cannot be overestimated.

Just after December 1981, it looked as if General Jaruzelski had decided to follow this course of reform. Today, however, very little is left of the initial enthusiasm and the rhetorical determination to implement a new economic policy. And the results achieved during the last three years are criticized even by official Polish economists. Discussions of leading authorities on problems of economic reform and of practitioners of industrial management show that the dominant outlook is rather pessimistic.

The successive spectacular increases in the price of consumer goods have not achieved the expected effects. Groups with the strongest bargaining position—the army, the police, the party apparatus, some categories of workers (coal miners, for instance)—obtain compensation for any decrease in their purchasing power. The burden of price increases therefore falls on those who are already underprivileged. The true problem, that of relations between industrial enterprises and the central planning board, is not even affected.

The economic reforms of General Jaruzelski’s government are, to put it mildly, inconsistent. They are intended to introduce some market elements into the economy without diminishing the decision-making power of the political leadership and its executive organ, the Central Planning Board. One observes a revival of traditional distrust and hostility in governmental attitudes toward the private sector, strikingly parallel to the evolution of the new repressive legislation and the revival of hard-line rhetoric. After initial support for the development of small-scale enterprises, a campaign against such undertakings was launched in the media at the end of 1983. Allegedly, it was a struggle against "speculation" and unlawful "enrichment," but in fact it was an attack against private enterprise and was perceived as such. Tax and administrative regulations that constrained private investment before 1980 were not relaxed enough to increase significantly the share of the private sector in the national economy.

All these actions are occurring in spite of the officially endorsed "Committee Poland 2000" report of the Polish Academy of Sciences, which predicts within a few years ecological deterioration, further pauperization of the populace, disintegration of transport, a dangerous decline in the motivation of workers and other dramatic developments. According to the report, "the long limitation of investments may have in the near future social and ecological consequences on an unimaginable scale."


If all of the regulations introduced into the Polish legal system during the last four years were fully implemented, Poland would be a "normal" socialist country. But such is not the case. There are still oases of liberty in Poland. They exist, however, because of Solidarity’s organized resistance and because of the independence and intransigence of the Roman Catholic Church, in spite of all efforts aimed at their destruction by the "enlightened" policy of General Jaruzelski.

In December 1981, Solidarity’s nonviolent resistance was crushed by police and army units using tanks and live ammunition. Since then, Solidarity has failed to organize a successful general strike and all major street demonstrations have been brutally dispersed by the riot police; however, Solidarity has had more success in other forms of nonviolent struggle. It has created an unprecedented underground network of cultural, educational, publishing and other activities. Typical trade union activity is also carried on, especially at the shop floor and plant level.

One leader of underground Solidarity’s national commission, Zbigniew Bujak, calls for Solidarity to promote a decidedly decentralized movement, and to adopt different methods of action, so-called positional warfare. That is, individual groups and social circles should refine techniques of resistance appropriate to their circumstances so that all together will be able to counteract the encroachments which the government conducts through its mass organization, the Patriotic Movement of National Renaissance, upon various aspects of social life.

According to Wiktor Kulerski, another leader of underground Solidarity, the development of independent social initiatives should lead to a situation where "the authorities control empty shops but not the market, workers’ employment but not their livelihood, state-owned mass media but not the circulation of information, printing houses but not publishing, the post and telegrams but not communication, the schools but not education." Kulerski believes that this sort of social independence could lead, in time, to a situation where the rulers would control only the police and a handful of sworn collaborators.

Even if such a belief seems exceedingly optimistic, it remains true that the strategy chosen by Solidarity has proved to be very effective. For instance, in 1984 one independent observer noted:

Hundreds of underground periodicals are being published more or less regularly, scores of new titles are added annually to the already rich library of underground book publishing, some of them in quantities which would seem respectable even to Western commercial publishers. Living-room theatre, underground cabaret, unofficial art exhibitions are flourishing. Tens of thousands of Poles attend unofficial adult education classes . . . participation in the underground frequently taps professional skills that the state does not call upon. A group of historians is making ready for publication—out of the country and underground, of course—a vast history of Poland during the last forty years. The participants in such activities risk severe reprisals ranging from dismissal from their jobs to long terms of imprisonment under appalling conditions. Even so, their numbers appear to be growing.

In estimating the percentage of the population involved in activities of Solidarity and of different oppositional groups connected with it, we encounter several concentric circles, starting with the very core composed of persons living completely underground under false identities. They are not numerous but they need the aid of many people who maintain liaison and who procure documents and money. Involved in all this are probably hundreds of persons. Then come all those who apparently lead a normal life, but who are at the same time clandestine Solidarity trade union organizers: members of regional commissions, of commissions in industrial enterprises and other different institutions, shop stewards and activists at various levels. Their number may be estimated at several thousand. To this one has to add members of groups monitoring violations of legality, their informants all over the country and also members of clandestine educational and cultural structures.

A very conservative estimate of the number of people necessary to publish and to distribute some 500 titles of the underground press and publishing houses yields at least 5,000 more; at the most modest count, the number of readers of this material may be near to half a million. Members of categories enumerated above, participants in trade union, cultural and educational activities, partly overlap with Solidarity’s dues-paying membership; all in all they number several hundred thousand at least.

As Poland’s urban population between the ages of 15 and 70 is composed of roughly 15 million persons, it follows from our estimate that between five and ten percent has some contact with underground activities. We do not even try to take into account all those who are listening with attention, and often with hope, to the voice of Solidarity’s president, Lech Walesa.

Nothing shows better that we may be underestimating this support than the official data on voter abstention. During the elections to the local councils in May 1984, Solidarity’s appeal to boycott the vote was heeded by roughly 6.5 million persons, or about 25 percent of the electorate. According to the State Electoral Commission, 21 percent, or roughly 5.5 million voters, boycotted the October 13, 1985, elections to the Sejm. (Solidarity’s estimate is 34 percent.) Though lower than the rate of abstention reported for the local council election, it is still an impressive figure when compared to the 1980 Sejm election, when participation attained a level of 98.8 percent. Analysis of the data of the State Electoral Commission shows that abstention was highest in urban and industrialized constituencies with a high percentage of workers—the greatest strongholds of Solidarity. The noteworthy point is that after almost four years of Jaruzelski’s rule, more than 5.5 million Poles chose to defy the regime.


The number of participants in independent activities is even larger than that of supporters of Solidarity. It encompasses all participants in religious ceremonies and in cultural and educational activities conducted under the patronage of the Catholic church. The church is the only institution having an open, public existence while being independent of the state in its inner functioning and in the content of its teaching. This is why relations between the church and the government which is an executive organ of the Communist Party are at the very center of Polish politics.

Just after the imposition of martial law, General Jaruzelski indicated that he would like to cooperate with the church and would be ready to ease some administrative restrictions concerning religious practice in Poland. Although he ignored the church’s successive initiatives asking for the respect of human rights and trade union freedoms, he nevertheless avoided an open confrontation with the Catholic hierarchy. After long and hard negotiations, he even gave his approval to the second visit to Poland of John Paul II, trying to make some political use of it. Apparently, at that time his policy was focused on the struggle against Solidarity, and conflicts with the church were considered undesirable.

Since the spring of 1984, however, the governmental media have increased the frequency of their attacks against those priests who never concealed their sympathies for Solidarity. They are accused of an abuse of religious freedom, and alleged to be organizing political antigovernmental manifestations under the cover of religious ceremonies. This campaign was intensified at the beginning of autumn 1984, when the Politburo of the Polish Communist Party published a document on the internal situation with one chapter of very violent criticism of the church. Then came the murder of Father Jerzy Popieluszko by four officials of the Ministry of Interior. Suspected by public opinion of being responsible for this crime, General Jaruzelski stopped the antichurch campaign, which had undoubtedly encouraged the murder, and, in order to preserve his and his government’s reputation, tried to present himself as a victim of a plot of anonymous hard-liners aiming at his overthrow.

The Torun trial for the murder, which received unusual publicity, was arranged to exculpate the party and state authorities. To attain this, the public prosecutor and the judge did all they could to hide any possible connection between the four murderers and their patrons in the party and state apparatus. (But Miroslaw Milewski, secretary of the Central Committee of the Polish Communist Party, the member of the Politburo responsible for internal affairs, was later obliged to resign from his position.) At the same time, with the active complicity of the defendants themselves, the prosecutor and judge tried to transform the trial of the murderers of Father Popieluszko into a trial of their victim, some bishops and the Polish church in general.

The trial marked the end of a brief truce between the government and the church. The attacks started again, this time against the church’s association with opposition intellectuals and artists.

On January 25, 1985, the minister of culture requested an investigation of the cultural activity conducted within churches. The vice president of Warsaw, Michal Szymborski, charged that through the "struggle for moral-political leadership in Poland the church tries to isolate and deprive socialist forces of influence."

When in May 1985 General Jaruzelski met with the primate of Poland, Cardinal Glemp, after an interval of 18 months, they separated without any agreement despite several hours of discussion. And the audience accorded by Pope John Paul II to the Polish minister of foreign affairs was remarkable for its coldness. Between the state and the church there is still a latent conflict that comes to the surface from time to time, and which seems to become more and more acute. In this field, as in those of legislation, official rhetoric and economic policy, General Jaruzelski apparently is restoring a situation well known from the past.

In Polish postwar history, one can distinguish three cycles of government-church relations. Every time political opposition was strong, the authorities tried to have good relations with the church. This was the case in 1945-49, 1956-58 and January 1978 to April 1984. But when the authorities gained the impression that they were successfully reducing the influence of the political opposition, they immediately tried to curtail the activity of the church. They did not go so far as to oppose religious practice, but they accused the church of all sorts of political involvement and exerted pressures on the clergy through the use of different administrative means, sometimes even the police and courts. This policy was applied in 1949-1953, 1958-59, and since April 1984.

This second pattern of relations, a condition of neither peace nor war, was followed in the past by a period of open confrontation between the church and the Polish government. Sharp attacks on the church took place between 1953 and 1956 and from 1959 to 1977. There is some danger that we now face a third confrontation in government-church relations.

Taking into account all of these complexities, one can express a judgment on the nearly four years of General Jaruzelski’s policy. Hardly any one of the original conciliatory promises has been realized. If his words were of peace and understanding, his deeds were of war and oppression. Opportunities to open the way for some sort of political compromise were not missing even after December 1981, but all have been deliberately wasted by the Polish authorities.

The regime has not made any effort whatsoever to find a compromise with Solidarity. Despite the initial promises of General Jaruzelski himself and of the deputy prime minister, Rakowski, the new Trade Union Act adopted in October 1982 banned all previously existing trade unions. In 1982-83, the unions of Polish journalists, writers and painters were also banned. These associations enjoy popular support in Poland but one could hardly imagine that they create a threat to the security of the regime. On the contrary, they could help to bridge the gap between the state and society. But evidently the authorities are not interested in this, for they have ignored successive conciliatory proposals of the Catholic church trying to act as a mediator between the Communist leadership and the independent social movement.

Even when the authorities made some concessions, these concessions appeared to be very short-lived. For instance, the Act on Higher Education adopted in 1982 was drafted already before the martial law, according to requirements of universities themselves. Yet this act was modified in July 1985, despite the protests of universities, so as to curtail all their autonomy and submit them to the arbitrariness of the state administration and the Communist Party. Last but not least, the idea of the Agricultural Fund subsidized from abroad via the church was introduced in the autumn of 1982. The fund created a chance to alleviate the most drastic shortages in food production in Poland. This project, however, is still waiting for governmental approval.

Developments since December 1981 indicate therefore that General Jaruzelski has ignored all major domestic opportunities to work out a compromise between the designs of the Communist rulers of Poland and the aspirations of the Polish nation. Increasingly, it has become clear that he has no intention whatsoever of negotiating with Moscow for any concessions on behalf of the Polish people. Two former leaders of the Polish Communist Party, Gomulka in 1956-59 and Gierek in the early 1970s, manifested at least some willingness to exploit a potential for flexibility on the part of the Soviet Union with respect to Eastern Europe. This consolidated their political power for some time, and also brought some relief to the Polish people. So far, it seems that General Jaruzelski merely seeks support and legitimacy from Moscow for the "normalization" policy we have described.


Western reaction to the Polish situation is criticized as being improvised, ephemeral and disorganized. From the present Polish perspective this criticism is justified. After the martial law decree, NATO countries could agree neither on a joint policy nor even on a joint rhetoric concerning violation of human rights in Poland. In this situation, Washington imposed economic sanctions on Poland but did not develop any comprehensive program of American participation in overcoming the Polish crisis. In consequence, American policy stimulated controversies inside the Atlantic alliance and failed to constrain the repressive policy of General Jaruzelski. As Jean-François Revel has put it: "The Soviets succeeded in the twin project of stepping on Poland while setting the Europeans against the Americans. They operated with total impunity, at least as far as we [that is, the West] were concerned; such problems as did arise for them stemmed not from our firmness but from the Poles’ resistance."

The creation of Solidarity in the summer of 1980 had attracted a certain amount of attention from the Carter Administration. When the Soviets deployed forces along Poland’s borders in December 1980, President Carter warned that, although the United States had no desire to exploit the crisis, an invasion of Poland would have most negative consequences for U.S.-Soviet relations. This American policy was considered by the Poles to be relevant and effective. At the same time, the Carter Administration considered proposing a plan for "mini-Marshall aid" to Poland, intending to strengthen the credibility of liberalizing developments in that country.

During the first months of President Reagan’s Administration, however, Polish affairs were apparently a matter of secondary concern. In particular, there was no longer any audible debate about "mini-Marshall aid" to Poland, nor was the crisis prevention policy adapted to the new developments in Poland. On the other hand, President Reagan’s reaction to martial law was immediate, sharp and emotional. Although he was unable to convince all Western Europeans, his policy of sanctions was initially very popular in Poland. Solidarity activitists feared that further unconditional Western credits would assist General Jaruzelski to motivate his partisans rather than provide help for Polish citizens.

Nevertheless, the popularity of American sanctions has been gradually declining in Poland. In December 1983, Lech Walesa himself asked for relaxation of the sanctions. We can discern three basic reasons for such a change.

First, American sanctions served the Polish regime as an excuse for its economic mismanagement and lack of will to introduce any comprehensive economic reform. General Jaruzelski was desperately seeking the popular legitimization of his regime, and someone had to be blamed for the prolonged misery of the Polish people. In this way, American sanctions became the key element of the official propaganda in Poland.

Second, the American policy of sanctions did not leave any freedom of political maneuver for Lech Walesa and Solidarity. Remarkable arguments were raised both in the West and in Poland that the negative policy toward the Polish military government should be combined with some positive elements, which could motivate Jaruzelski to lift repressions and give ordinary Poles hope for a better future in the event that Solidarity would again be legalized. But President Reagan did not go beyond an ambiguous statement that "if the Polish government introduces meaningful liberalizing measures, we will take equally significant and concrete actions of our own." By the same token, the idea of the "mini-Marshall aid" to Poland was never instituted, and the conditions under which the American sanctions would be lifted were changeable and often unrealistic.

Third, West European governments failed to develop any solution for the Polish crisis, though by and large they opposed the American policy of sanctions. Even though several European governments officially endorsed sanctions, Europeans considered American actions as unilateral and inconsistent (for example, Americans boycotted a gas pipeline deal between Europe and the U.S.S.R. but promoted a grain deal with Moscow). In fact, however, West European policy itself was also manifestly inconsistent and incoherent.

The Poles found it difficult to understand why advocates of détente, who for a dozen years supported the idea of economic aid to the East as a means of pacifying communist regimes, declined to reduce such aid in 1982, in spite of the evidence provided by the imposition of martial law that the policy had failed. The Poles were also amazed by the tremendous gap between sharp European rhetoric against Jaruzelski’s repressions and the mild actions adopted to constrain those repressions. For instance, French officials "condemned" and "reproved" the "emergency regime" in Poland, but their most concrete action was the opening of the Polish section of Radio France Internationale. Other West European states failed to go even that far. In this respect, the attitudes of Greece and the Federal Republic of Germany evoked the greatest bitterness and confusion among the Poles.


Western disagreements did not emerge merely from different perceptions of the developments in Poland. They were also an expression of major differences over the most desirable model of East-West relations.

Soviet adventurist policy of the late 1970s evoked serious concern, especially in the United States. A crackdown on Solidarity was yet another confirmation of the aggressive nature of Soviet conduct. Even the usually cautious Secretary of State George Shultz declared in August 1984 that the United States "will never accept the idea of a divided Europe" and that "the tide of history is with us." However, both American and European conservatives demanded from Western governments certain deeds against the Soviet bloc and not merely rhetoric. In this respect, as we all know, the conservatives have been profoundly disappointed by the Administration of President Reagan.

In principle, many Poles agree with certain arguments of the conservatives, but they have difficulty comprehending how some other conservative-sponsored policy recommendations, such as the proposal to denounce the Helsinki accords or to prompt the financial bankruptcy of Poland, would indeed serve the interests of the people in Eastern Europe.

Poles know, for instance, that the Helsinki accords cannot liberate Eastern Europe from the communist yoke. They did, however, create the diplomatic means to assist East European efforts to make the Soviet system more humane and less repressive. Therefore, in the Polish view, the point is to use these diplomatic means with wisdom and determination rather than to abandon them. As Andrei Sakharov has put it: "The critical international situation requires that Western participating states [i.e., participants in the Helsinki process] coordinate their tactics and pursue their goals with determination and consistence . . . the whole point of the Helsinki accord is mutual monitoring, not mutual evasion of difficult problems."

As far as the Polish case and other models of East-West relations are concerned, we can distinguish two Western bodies of pro-détente opinion. The first considers the détente policy as the only alternative to a cold war; accordingly, all confrontationist statements about the suppression of Solidarity can only contribute to yet greater tension in relations with Moscow and thereby stimulate the arms race and increase the danger of nuclear catastrophe.

Poles fiercely oppose such a perception of East-West relations. Solidarity leaders have repeatedly stated that it is not weapons but the minds behind weapons which create threats, and that lasting peace in Europe cannot be secured unless certain basic rights and aspirations of East European nations are met. Moreover, they argue that one cannot perceive world politics in the black and white terms of détente or cold war policies, leaving no place for pragmatism or conciliatory solutions.

The second pro-détente view is in fact much more pragmatic. Representatives of this approach argue that, despite a certain disillusion with the policy of détente caused by Soviet misbehavior, détente can still play an important role in East-West relations. In international politics, they argue, the choice is not simply between all and nothing. At present the real choice in policy with the Soviets is between a greater or lesser evil. As the West German editor, Theo Sommer, has put it: "However awful this basic truth may sound to us, we have no choice but to return to détente after each case of suppression [i.e., of Eastern Europeans], resuming the effort to limber up, to humanize, or as it were, to ‘Finlandize’ Eastern Europe."

Unable to suggest any comprehensive solution for security and justice in Europe, proponents of this view argue that the West should try to achieve at least some limited Soviet concessions concerning small but important issues such as family reunification, military confidence-building and selected forms of economic cooperation. In practice, this means being resigned to the failure to achieve the more ambitious demands concerning freedom of trade unions or freedom of information. After all, the argument concludes, it is hard to expect that Moscow would make concessions that would directly threaten the integrity of their system.

In principle, many Poles welcome some sort of compromise with Moscow and reject the rule of "all or nothing." Nevertheless, they have important arguments against the specific model of compromise advocated by this pragmatic pro-détente orientation. There is a danger that the adoption of this policy would result in an unwanted appeasement of the Soviet Union. Limited Soviet concessions in the field of family reunification in Germany, however desirable, cannot compensate for the crushing of Solidarity or for the invasion of Afghanistan. Moreover, the obsession with good relations with Moscow, which could in turn produce some limited progress in the field of economic or diplomatic cooperation, makes it easy for the Soviet Union to mislead or even blackmail Western Europeans for concessions to achieve such progress.

Finally, the small compromises advocated by this pragmatic model of détente are probably insufficient to deal with deep political and economic crises in countries such as Poland, Romania or Yugoslavia. In other words, the small compromise with communist regimes would tend to stimulate conflicts in some East European countries rather than contribute to the peaceful settlement of these conflicts. Western failure to exert strong pressure on governments in Warsaw, Bucharest or Belgrade to put their economies in order and restrict the violations of human rights could have very negative consequences for developments in these countries and therefore for Europe as a whole. The West can hardly afford yet another crisis in Poland or a pro-Moscow military coup d’état in Yugoslavia.


Our analysis leads to the following conclusions:

The Polish crisis is not yet over. On the contrary, the present policy of General Jaruzelski’s regime perpetuates existing problems and increases the probability of a violent explosion in Poland. The behavior of the Polish government challenges universal ethical standards and violates a number of international conventions ratified by Poland.

The United States and West European states have at their disposal various means which could influence developments in Poland and by the same token increase the chances for a gradual, peaceful settlement of the Polish crisis.

Western countries should forswear the empty rhetoric of the "crusade for democracy" since it creates the impression that they are willing to do more than they actually can do in Eastern Europe. But Western policymakers should also strive to avoid indifference and vacillation with respect to Eastern Europe. Indecision, weakness and signs of division within the Western alliance are skillfully exploited by the Soviet Union.

There is no single blueprint solution for dealing with Poland. In fact, we have tried to indicate that from the point of view of Solidarity, the solution for the Polish crisis—and for that matter for dealing with Moscow—can come about only as the result of day-by-day bargaining to which no single lasting model of pressure and compromise can be applied. This solution cannot emerge from the logic of an "all or nothing" policy which perceives relations with Moscow in terms of either détente or cold war.

Let us then present a few concrete proposals for dealing with the Polish crisis.

Special attention should be given to the International Monetary Fund policy toward Poland. We are aware of the difficulty in expecting the IMF to set political conditions for Poland. But to achieve any kind of economic progress, political conditions, however minimal, are absolutely essential. Trade union pluralism at least at the local level must be allowed, and secrecy and censorship concerning economic matters (excluding those with military implications) must be abolished. Without these conditions no independent monitoring of policies is possible, and that includes the implementation of any recommendations by the IMF.

The road to improvement of Poland’s economic situation, and its ability to service its debts in particular, can only be carried out through a structural change in the economic mechanism. A precondition of paramount importance is the full and genuine observance of equal rights in economic activity for all ownership sectors: private, municipal, cooperative and state. Special attention should also be paid to direct measures which would stimulate exports through a more realistic and flexible exchange-rate policy. Investment policy (including projects financed by the IMF) should be evaluated from this point of view.

The measures required by the IMF should not lead to a substantial reduction in consumption, to price increases, to freezes on real wages or to deterioration in social care. A further decline in living standards would not only be harmful to economic recovery, but also increase the danger of an uncontrolled social upheaval with all of the ensuing consequences.

A further deterioration in the standard of living could be combated through the increase of agricultural production. Therefore we very strongly endorse the plan of the Episcopate of the Polish Catholic Church to channel private and public contributions from the West to private family farms through an autonomous foundation closely associated with the church. This program should be designed to give private peasants access to machinery, fertilizers and other agricultural materials that are hard to obtain in Poland. Special political pressure should be put on the Polish authorities to accept this program.

The second important area in which the West could contribute to overcoming the Polish crisis is the area of education, information, science and culture. The West can help the Poles to preserve their European identity, and at the same time to resist cultural sovietization of Poland.

We recommend increased Western investment in radio broadcasting to Poland in Polish. These radio programs represent the most accessible source of information for the Poles, who are under constant pressure from campaigns of misinformation conducted by the state-controlled mass media.

We endorse various sorts of cultural exchange. Western assistance in the field of culture might first of all consist of sending books and films to Poland, and of translating Western books and especially university handbooks. To make this possible on a large scale, some arrangement should be found that would enable Polish publishers to avoid paying for copyrights in hard currency.

We also support various sorts of scientific and educational exchange with Poland. This exchange ought to be decentralized, however, and Western partners should have a say in selecting people for the exchange programs. Priority should be given to the exchange of students and scholars specializing in medicine and agriculture.

Finally, we would like to recommend continuation of humanitarian help to Poland, especially in the field of medicine. Today, the situation of Polish hospitals is particularly tragic.

There is one field where compromises and concessions should be avoided, and that is in the field of basic human rights. Of course, there is no clear borderline between politics and human rights. But one can hardly understand why, for instance, West European governments withdrew a draft of the resolution submitted at the last session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights that condemned violations of human rights in Poland. We also find it difficult to understand the passive attitude of certain Western delegations at the recent human rights review conference in Ottawa, conducted within the framework of the Helsinki conference. It is our view that the West should make clear that its requests that the Soviet bloc live up to its international obligations expressed in the Helsinki Final Act or in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights do not represent an interference in the Soviet bloc’s internal affairs.

To accept Soviet arguments that détente leads to greater respect for human rights and that international tension leads to a clampdown on those rights would mean that governments may hold their own people hostage, treating them either well or badly depending on the way the same governments are treated by other countries in international affairs. Respect for human rights leads to a relaxation of international tension, rather than the other way around.

In dealing with Poland, the real choice of the West lies therefore not in supporting either Stalinism or Kádárism, or either hawks or doves in the Polish Politburo. It lies between actions that have the effect of strengthening the repressive government of Jaruzelski and policies that encourage the liberal alternative symbolized by Solidarity.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Jerzy Milewski is a physicist and the director of Solidarity’s coordinating office abroad in Brussels. Krzysztof Pomian is a historian and a professor at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. Jan Zielonka is associate professor of International Relations at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. Professors Pomian and Zielonka are advisers to Solidarity’s coordinating office abroad.
  • More By Jerzy Milewski
  • More By Krzysztof Pomian
  • More By Jan Zielonka