President sees Poland on the brink of mayhem: Lech Walesa wants his own army so that he can 'restore order', writes Adrian Bridge in Warsaw

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The Independent Online
WHEN President Lech Walesa looks out of the windows of the Belweder Palace in Warsaw, he sees a country in mortal danger.

He has a vision of a Poland tottering on the brink of anarchy, easy prey for gangs of violent criminals and a breeding ground for social unrest. He also views with growing horror developments in neighbouring former Soviet republics to the east and fears his country could easily be sucked into a black hole of Yugoslav-style ethnic conflict and economic destitution.

'From the latest information I have received, a revolution of the October (1917) type is fast approaching in the east,' President Walesa announced in a typically provocative radio interview recently. 'If we do not come to our senses quickly, if we do not prepare more effectively, organise more efficiently, we may not be able to meet the tasks and challenges we face today.'

As far as the President is concerned, the main challenge confronting Poland is to complete the revolution against Communism, in which he played a key role, and to establish, beyond doubt, a genuinely democratic and prosperous modern state.

And, convinced that he is still the main engine of that change, he has proposed the formation of a national guard that would come under his control and could be used to put down civil disturbances, provide assistance to victims of natural disasters and bolster border controls, particularly in the east.

In the coming two months, Mr Walesa will seek to win parliamentary approval for his plan, which envisages the transformation of the Vistula Units, elite troops under the command of the Interior Ministry, into a 22,000-strong force which, as he puts it, will 'restore order' in Poland within six months.

Addressing a rally of Solidarity supporters in the Gdansk shipyard where he once worked as an electrician, Mr Walesa conceded that the new guard would have some resemblance to the Zomo, the despised Communist riot police force that was dissolved in 1990. Like the Zomo, the new guard 'would be effective and would prevent attacks on innocent victims,' he said, adding that if parliament rejected his scheme, he would, in characteristically populist mode, 'appeal to the nation' over the issue.

The outcome of the parliamentary vote is far from certain. But already opponents of the President, who include many of his former Solidarity colleagues, have criticised the national guard proposal as further proof of dictatorial tendencies that must be resisted at all costs.

If approved, such a force would be a 'big stick in the President's hands', warned Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the opposition Central Alliance Party. The party was once one of Mr Walesa's strongest supporters but of late has devoted nearly all its energies to trying to discredit the President by suggesting that he and some of his advisers were secret agents for the former Communist regime.

Less partial observers see the row over the presidential guards as yet another illustration of Mr Walesa's frustration over the limited powers that he has been granted under the 'small constitution' passed last year and his attempts to extend his sphere of influence as wide as possible.

'The President has become increasingly isolated and weaker politically,' said Piotr Pacewicz of Gazeta Wyborcza, the former Solidarity newspaper. 'But while the prospect of a strong army in the hands of a weak president is alarming, he has not turned out to be the dictator-in-waiting that was once widely feared.'

Few in Warsaw still seriously think, as they did during the bitter presidential campaign in 1991, that Mr Walesa harbours serious ambitions to become a second Josef Pilsudski, Poland's authoritarian leader in the inter-war years. And, at times, despite his plummeting popularity even among the many ordinary people who voted him into office, he is still seen as perhaps the only figure who could unite the nation if it really did enter a crisis.

'He drew the nation together once and could, maybe, do it again,' said one Western source. 'The President himself still thinks he is leading the revolution. Unfortunately for him, most people think the revolution is over. Mr Walesa is no longer the hero of the hour; his role is greatly diminished. He finds that hard to accept.'