Poland's reformed Communist charms the West

January 19, 1996|By Elizabeth Pond

BONN -- Alexander Kwasniewski's visit to Germany last week and to NATO this week illustrates three axioms of the new Europe.

First, the starting point of any European country's foreign policy has to be good relations with the continent's powerhouse. Bonn and Berlin were the first ports of call of the new Polish president, less than a month after his inauguration.

Second, the election of ex-Communists like Mr. Kwasniewski in Central Europe (Russia is different) demonstrates the conversion Communists to capitalism, not the reversion of capitalism to central planning. Mr. Kwasniewski will be a much stricter financial disciplinarian than his predecessor, Solidarity hero Lech Walesa.

Third -- and this is true around the world -- presidents find it a lot easier to shine abroad than at home. In Poland the opposition sat through Mr. Kwasniewski's induction stony-faced, and is sharply criticizing his lackluster appointments and passivity in dealing with espionage charges against his close political ally, Prime Minister Jozef Oleksy.

In Western Europe, by contrast, German President Roman Herzog and Chancellor Helmut Kohl accorded the Polish head of state full honors; NATO Secretary General Javier Solana did the same this week. Mr. Kwasniewski, basking in the attention, looks much more relaxed in the West than he does in Poland.

The Polish president has launched a campaign to convince Bonn especially that he seeks Polish membership in the Western clubs of NATO and the European Union just as urgently as Mr. Walesa did. The Germans, the key European players, are more than ready to be convinced. Ever since the end of the Cold War and their own reunification in 1990 they have maintained that Western Europe cannot stay stable unless it draws Central Europe into its privileged zone of prosperity and security. Poland, with its population of 38 million and its now-booming economy, is the linchpin in this strategy.

In domestic policy, Mr. Kwasniewski is plausibly assuring his Western hosts that that he will continue to support the reforms that have propelled Poland to the highest growth rate in Europe -- and that helped elect him as a young (age 41) Western managerial type over the more old-fashioned Mr. Walesa. His wife is one of the many from the old Communist elite who have profited from the transformation to become well-to-do entrepreneurs; his failure to declare some of her shares in his own financial disclosure became an issue in the election campaign.

Even in opposition the ex-Communists, now called the Alliance of the Democratic Left, quietly voted for Poland's tough ''shock therapy.'' Some party members are more ideological than Mr. Kwasniewski, but by now reform economists within the Alliance have persuaded the old-timers to accept the need for curbing inflationary pensions.

No excessive scruples

In both foreign and domestic policy, then, President Kwasniewski pledges continuity. Westerners incline to take him at his word. They calculate that even Communists-turned-capitalists will behave like rational capitalists, and they don't have excessive moral scruples about how the former Polish elite somersaulted into the present free-market elite.

For Mr. Kwasniewski's domestic audience the judgment is different. Last November some 52 percent of voters accepted the Alliance's credentials as a social-democratic party and deemed Mr. Kwasniewski harmless, or even the most likely to advance reform in Poland. The 48 percent who voted against him, however, have qualms arising from the past. They $l remember his opportunistic rise as a young functionary in the Communist Party even after the Solidarity trade union was outlawed and the vast majority of Poles shunned the party in the 1980s. They don't trust his gesture of non-partisanship in resigning from the Alliance after he became president.

Many may suspect Mr. Walesa's own motives, just before leaving the presidential palace, in accusing Mr. Kwasniewski's ally, Prime Minister Oleksy, of spying for the Russians. Evidence presented so far is insufficient to warrant a prosecution, but many also find disquieting Mr. Oleksy's frequent contact with Russian officials even after the end of Poland's status as a Soviet client.

Under these circumstances, President Kwasniewski clearly appreciates his respites away from home in the hospitable West. And he can only hope that if he does achieve Poland's supreme goal of admission to membership in NATO and the European Union, Polish voters will forget their domestic complaints about him.

Elizabeth Pond is co-author of the forthcoming ''The German Question and Other German Questions,'' to be published by St. Martin's Press.

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