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As winter descends on Poland, political climate heats up

Poland's hopes for dialogue have vanished, replaced by rising risks of confrontation. Although Solidarity leader Lech Walesa backed off from calling a strike alert at a rally at the Lenin Shipyard yesterday, six Solidarity leaders interviewed by the Monitor expressed pessimism and anger. They said that the much-touted ``round-table'' talks between the government and the banned trade union have been torpedoed.

Before the talks take place, Solidarity demands that the government renounce last week's decision to close the shipyard on Dec. 1. The shipyard is the union's symbolic fief, and was the site of worker unrest in 1970, 1976, 1980, and twice again this year. The union also demands the reinstatement of 112 workers fired for their roles in strikes.

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``The negotiations have been sabotaged with stupid propaganda moves, first firing workers and then closing the shipyard,'' said union stalwart Jacek Kuron. ``The price to get everyone back to the table is getting higher every day.''

The government refuses to pay that price. At his weekly press conference yesterday, government spokesman Jerzy Urban derided Mr. Walesa and his advisers as ``no-men,'' saying that ``one hardly can draw far-reaching political conclusions'' from the decision to call off the strike threat.

An explosion may not come right away over the shipyard, Solidarity leaders admit. In the longer term, however, they fear a violent showdown.

``The atmosphere is heating up,'' says Bronislaw Geremek, a leading union official. Professor Geremek is a soft-spoken, gentle man, who long has preached compromise instead of confrontation. In August, he helped persuade Walesa to call off a wave of strikes. Now he hesitates to counsel restraint.

``I've always thought that strikes were destructive, a disaster for the country,'' he says. ``But when all political solutions, all compromises, are blocked, how can I tell workers to stop?''

Andrzej Stelmachowski, the much-admired Roman Catholic intellectual who arranged a key meeting between Walesa and Interior Minister Czeslaw Kiszczak, asks the same question. Back in September, he expressed excitement about the possibility of reaching ``a historic compromise.''

Mr. Stelmachowski now is despondent. In his opinion, strong resistance from the lower ranks of the Communist Party forced the authorities to back away from an agreement. ``The hard-line forces have succeeded in their counterattack,'' he says. ``They've decided on confrontation instead of conciliation.''

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By closing Gdansk's Lenin shipyard, the government's gamble seems to be that it can break Solidary and move decisively on economic restructuring.

The authorities will continue to offer new freedoms. Passport regulations are being legalized. Farmers soon will be able to sell their produce to whomever they want, not just the state board. Private enterprise will be freed from restrictions. And anybody will be able to set up an independent ``association,'' provided it is not a trade union.

``The government once again seems to think it can impose economic reform without real political reform and the consent of society,'' says Witold Trzeciakowski, a leading economist.

``It may work for a little while. It won't work for long,'' he adds.

Solidarity calculates that Poles may not be ready yet to launch a nationwide protest to back up the shipyard workers. Union support is limited to the behemoths of Polish industry, the 200 or so steel mills, coal mines, and shipyards. Police probably would have enough force to break another strike wave limited to a few large factories.

``We could get several enterprises out on strike, but not all,'' Geremek acknowledges. ``There's still a lot of apathy.''

Another restraining factor is the approach of winter, which brought early snow Monday. In December 1970, Gdansk workers protested pre-Christmas increases of food prices by taking to the streets. Police fired on them, killing 56. While that scenario could be repeated, police could stop an occupation strike with a simple measure - turning off the heat.

``The problems are more likely to come in spring,'' predicts Tadeusz Mazowiecki, another Solidarity leader.

``Workers' frustration will mount as they see the bankruptcy of this government policy,'' he said.

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