Warsaw, 13 November 1997 RFE/RL) -- It was almost 16 years ago, during the early hours of December 13, 1981, that soldiers in tanks and armored vehicles moved onto the streets of Polish cities, towns and villages to suppress a popular rebellion against the Communist system of government. For the next two years or so, Poland was under martial law, its population suffering mass detentions, its public organizations dissolved, its media muzzled and its basic freedoms severely curtailed.
Last weekend (Nov 8-10), an international conference was held in the small village of Jachranka, near the Polish capital Warsaw, to discuss whether the imposition of martial law was really necessary, who was the main instigator of that move, how did it come about and who should be held responsible for it?
Organized by the National Security Archive, an American non-governmental group in Washington, and the Institute of Political Studies at the Polish Academy of Sciences, the conference brought together an impressive array of once-principle actors in this already historical drama.
There were Marshal Viktor Kulikov, former commander-in-chief of the Warsaw Pact forces, and his former chief-of-staff General Anatoly Gribkov, who also served as a deputy chief-of-staff of the Soviet armed forces. There was also Georgy Shakhnazarov, former ranking official in the International Department of the Soviet party's Central Committee, who later became one of the closest advisors to Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet Union played a major role in the unfolding and the tragic conclusion of the Polish drama in the 1980s.
There were General Wojciech Jaruzelski, former top leader of the Polish Communist Party and head of Poland's government and the military at the time of the imposition of martial law, and Stanislaw Kania, the Polish Party leader during the beginning of the rebellion, who was eventually replaced by Jaruzelski, and there were several other ranking Polish Party officials.
There were also activists of Solidarity, a popular movement that had grown from a labor union to spread to all sectors of society in the popular protest against the Communist government, people such as Poland's first democratic prime minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, current Minister of Defense Janusz Onyszkiewicz, or renown Solidarity "counter-revolutionaries" Zbigniew Bujak and Bogdan Borusewicz, and many others.
And, there were important Americans, who, while not directly involved in the Polish conflict, influenced, at times, the behavior and policies of its direct participants. They included Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, and General William Odom, former head of the National Security Agency.
The discussion touched on several aspects of the conflict that broke out with the emergence in 1980 of Solidarity, the first independent labor union in the history of Communist politics, but essentially focused on the Soviet role in the Communist efforts to bring the conflict to its tragic end.
There is little doubt that the Soviet Union was preparing to invade Poland in December 1980, at the very outset of Solidarity's formation. This is clearly documented through transcripts of Soviet meetings, American aerial reconnaissance and intelligence reports.
Both Marshal Kulikov and General Gribkov denied this, arguing that they had never received "direct orders" to invade, that they had only made "preliminary" plans for the operations and that nothing "special" had been then contemplated.
Poland's Kania was adamant that the Soviet leadership was ready to go. He said that he had personally "begged" Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev not to do so.
But the crucial move appears to have been made by the United States and its Western allies, who strongly warned the Soviet government of "dire" consequences of an invasion.
The Soviets backed down. And from that point on, it appears that the key element of Moscow's policy was to persuade, cajole and push the Poles to "take care" of Solidarity by their own means.
But who was to do that job? There is strong - but still circumstantial evidence - that Moscow's choice was General Jaruzelski. While he cooperated with Kania for several months, Jaruzelski had always been a loyal Communist who effectively controlled the Polish armed forces, and who had a reputation of being an honest military officer.
Jaruzelski replaced Kania as top party leader in October 1981, apparently with Soviet blessing and Moscow's direct support.
Gribkov told the conference that he personally intervened to give Jaruzelski support. Gribkov appears to have thought that by mentioning this episode that he was now paying homage to Jaruzelski's integrity. Most of the conference participants saw it as an admission of Jaruzelski's political bond to Soviet leadership.
Jaruzelski's role in the decision to impose martial law was even more ominous. Toward the middle of December 1981, he was told by the Soviet leadership that "no Soviet troops will be introduced to Poland," irrespective of the political situation there.
But Jaruzelski decided to move. Did he do it because he did not believe the Soviets? He told a RFE/RL correspondent that he did not believe the Soviet declarations. They had done the same in 1968 in Czechoslovakia, he said.
But was it really necessary? Couldn't he try to talk with Solidarity again? There was no indication that either Jaruzelski or any of his comrades ever attempted to do so.
Jaruzelski said that such talks were impossible, that Solidarity was becoming increasingly radicalized, that there was constant and growing pressure from Moscow to deal "decisively" with the "counter-revolution," and that to wait longer would bring a major catastrophe for the country as a whole.
The discussion at the conference brought no definitive answer to any of those questions - did not clarify doubts - but, did not absolve any of the culprits either.
Its main value was in bringing together various sides for a peaceful discussion and exchange of views.
But this, in itself, is a major political story. While the past had been marked by violence, tragedy and force, today it was possible to sit down at the same table -- albeit at different sides -- and discuss arguments, positions and actions. This was once regarded as clearly unthinkable. But it happened.