The significant political changes taking place in this part of the communist world are a recognition by the governments of Poland and Hungary that they were ripe for a Chinese-style uprising earlier this year, high-ranking Communist Party officials in Poland say.
"We objectively looked at the mood of the population and came to the conclusion that the only way out was to reach a settlement that would grant democratic rights and comprehensive economic freedom," said Mariwsj Gulczywski.
A senior party ideologue and the government author of the round-table agreement between the government and opposition movement Solidarity, Gulczywski said Poland "might have become a European version of Afghanistan, ready for civil war. We could have had a civil war in Poland if we didn't have the round table (settlement)."
Another Polish official said that "the situation was explosive and it is still very tense here."
The Polish government acted on sophisticated polls based on scientific samples of its population, Polish officials and
Western diplomats said. In one of those polls, taken last October, the dissatisfaction level reached 92 percent and the Pole most admired in the country was Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. He had an approval level of 87 percent.
The historic Chinese upheaval is being watched with intense fascination by Eastern Europeans, who feel the kinship of those who have lived under communism and are changing it.
Polish and Hungarian television regularly broadcast reports from Beijing, and citizens in bars and public places constantly and casually discuss the Chinese developments.
The high-speed democratization of Poland, which only two months ago agreed to grant new freedoms and to hold democratic elections on June 4 for one-third of the parliamentary seats and for a brand new Senate, came after Polish officials determined Poles were ready to rise up massively in protest.
"Our estimation was the situation in Poland was so grave that we could have ended as another Afghanistan, (with) troops engaging the population in an uprising," said Gulczywski, who also heads Poland's polling institute and is considered the country's equivalent to George Gallup of the United States.
"There is still a positively explosive condition in our country," said Zygmunten Czarzasty, secretary of the Polish Communist Party for democratic reforms. "The potential for this danger is still with us, and we look at China and see that we were right to act in all haste here . . . although I must add I do not quite believe student uprising would occur here; it is a workers movement in Poland."
The backdrop of the dissatisfaction, Polish officials and opposition leaders say, is a critical economic picture and a nine-year struggle between Solidarity and the Polish Communist Party. At the end of 1988, the economy was entering a tailspin as inflation was reaching nearly 200 percent a year, and the Soviet Union's Mikhail Gorbachev was pressuring Poland to put its house in order.
"We don't think Solidarity would have gone to war . . . but the strife would have been so massive and so sustained that it would have crippled the country," Gulczywski said.