The emergency Polish Communist Party congress, the one that Soviet tanks were supposed to prevent, is apparently about to begin. If it indeed opens as scheduled July 14, it would represent the latest, and perhaps most remarkable, achievement setting apart Polish reformers of 1981 from the Czechoslovak reformers of 1968.
Although it is impossible to pretend airtight knowledge of future Soviet policy, even when the future is measured in days, the evidence does seem overwhelming that Moscow has reconciled itself to the holding of the Polish conference.
A senior Soviet official says privately that the Polish crisis appears to have become somewhat less serious.
Although reiterating that the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies are "not indifferent" to events in Poland, he told the Monitor that most Poles now seemed to "understand that to bring the country to economic disaster benefits only adventurists." He said "extreme solutions" to the crisis were unlikely at present.
The official Soviet press, too, has been uncommonly restrained in commenting on Poland in recent days. Soviet newspapers have barely mentioned the congress.
Inside Poland, officials rejected a brief strike by airline workers July 9 because it allegedly challenged central control of the country's defense establishment.The Soviets, no doubt, agree. But the Soviet newspaper Pravda printed only a brief and relatively restrained item on the strike, not mentioning the defense issue.
At this writing, some diplomats saw another reason for Soviet restraint as the congress approached: there was no sign so far of extraordinary Soviet troop movements.
Not too long ago, both Soviet officials and diplomats here were speaking quite differently.
In a June letter to the Central Committee of the Polish Communist Party, Soviet leaders spoke of mounting "anti- Sovietism" in Poland and warned: "The possibility cannot be excluded that an attempt might be made at the congress, itself, to defeat decisively the Marxist-Leninist forces of the [Polish] party in order to liquidate it."
One Western ambassador said at the time there seemed a better-than-even chance Soviet tanks would roll before the congress -- just as they did before a planned congress of the reformist Czechoslovak party in 1968.
The two crises are different. The Polish reform movement has far more grass-roots support, and indeed began at the grass roots, while the party has acted generally as a moderating influence. The Poles might well resist any Soviet intervention in a way that the Czechs, by and large, did not. The Soviets, in terms of relations with the West, have far more to lose by cranking their tanks than in 1968.
But there have also been similarities in Moscow's handling of the two crises: the calling of a Warsaw Pact summit last December; the upgrading of military readiness on Poland's frontier; the familiar charges of "anti-socialism . . . anti-Sovietism . . . revisionism" and the repeated call for a "resolute rebuff" against Polish troublemakers.
Too, there has been similar talk of a Western plot to pry a Soviet ally free of the East bloc.
Finally, there was the tough June letter from the Soviet leadership, similar to one sent to Prague only days before the Moscow-led invasion there.
The Polish congress, the Western ambassador argued, would be a "crucial" issue for the Soviets. After all, it seemed likely to enshrine a lot of reforms the Soviets must find hard to swallow. "And, in their way, the Soviets are quite legalistic on issues like party congresses."
So what, as the Polish congress approaches, ever happened to the Soviet invasion that wasn't?
For one thing, the Soviets have said nothing publicly that either rules out or rules in direct intervention.
There is no assurance that the scheduled Polish congress will necessarily wrap up the Polish crisis -- for the Soviets, the Poles, the West, or anyone. Much ultimately depends on just what happens at such a congress, and, of equal importance, what happens afterward inside Poland.
So far, Polish Communist leader Stanislaw Kania has played his cards is masterly fashion, making reassuring noises to Moscow, warding off a hard-line challenge inside Poland, and trying to rein in the more extreme Polish reformers. With Mr. Kania's support, reputed conservatives on the Polish Politburo were elected by a reportedly less conservative party rank and file as delegates to the congress. Reports from Warsaw say the majority of congress delegates seems to be "moderate."
But how thoroughly will delegates remake the Central Committee at elections during the congress? What revisions will made in the way the party is run, and in the way the party runs the country? After the congress, will there be strikes , "anti-Sovietism," and "antisocialism?"
Two comments seem appropriate, both from analysts who suggested all along that the congress would convene.
The first comes from a senior West European diplomat. "Things have changed between [the time of] Czechoslovakia and Poland," he argues. "I think the Soviets' Pavlovian responses are the same. . . . they still salivate at what they see as 'antisocialism' and as a threat to Moscow. But the mental processes have changed.
"Intellectually, perhaps because the world has changed, they are more cautious."
And an East European source suggests that the Kremlin might well want to wait for the outcome of a Polish congress if possible -- to get something of a still photo of a maddeningly fluid situation -- before any reevaluation of Soviet policy on Poland.