Athens — Traditional American concepts about how East-West rivalry should turn out are challenged by a visit to the Balkans, that murky and mountainous corner of southeast Europe whose volatile ethnic mix touched off World War I.
Americans tend to think of Yugoslavia as a feisty, independent country whose break with the Soviet Union in 1948 ignited economic development and led to the most spontaneous life style in Eastern Europe.
They think of Bulgaria as a backward and static vassal state of the Soviet Union.
And, they see Romania as the most independent and clever of the Warsaw Pact members because of its individualistic foreign policy.
But none of these images is entirely true today.
The fact is that as far as these three Balkan nations are concerned, reliance on and subservience to the Soviet Union are paying off more than reliance on the West. This is not because the Soviet Union is a better ally, but because of the peculiar history and geographical position of these three Balkan states.
Yugoslavia went its own way in 1948 when the late Marshal Tito had an ideological dispute with Stalin. Romania enunciated its own independent brand of foreign policy in the early 1970s. In both countries these developments led to heavy trade with and economic reliance on Western Europe and the United States. And mainly for this reason the economies of both countries are now in shambles.
Bulgaria, on the other hand, never went its own way. Only in the past year, in fact, has Bulgaria spelled out a foreign policy line ever-so-mildly different from that of the Soviet Union.
And in matters of defense and state security, Bulgaria is still an adjunct of the Soviet Union - as allegations about Bulgarian complicity in the shooting of Pope John Paul II make clear.
Bulgaria does more trade with the Soviet Union than with all other countries of the world combined. Due to this, Bulgaria's standard of living is higher than that of its two communist neighbors.
Once Europe's poorest country, Bulgaria is now richer and less-troubled than Yugoslavia and Romania. Over the past three decades its leaders have manipulated the Soviets as much as the Soviets have manipulated them.
A glance through history reveals how this came about. Occupying the part of Europe closest to Asia and the Middle East, the Balkans have been a meeting place of competing nationalities and religions - and a path for conquerors over the centuries.
Since AD 395 when the Roman Empire was divided along a line running through present-day Yugoslavia, that country has been a place where the political and strategic interests of East and West have clashed. Western Yugoslavia - Croatia and Slovenia - has always been Roman Catholic and oriented westward. Serbia in the east has always been Eastern Orthodox and oriented toward the luxuriant flower that was Byzantium.
To further complicate matters, the southern underbelly of Yugoslavia contains 1.4 million ethnic Albanians who are Muslims. Muslims and Orthodox Christians in the Balkans have distrusted each other since the Muslim Turkish occupation of the region in the latter part of the Middle Ages.
In spirit, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania are still Eastern Orthodox regions despite the atheist veneer of communism. And throughout the dark, dismal centuries of Ottoman Turkish rule, that giant Eastern Orthodox power to the north and east - czarist Russia - was seen as the protector of Christianity in the Balkans.
In Bulgaria's case, this faith in Russia was borne out by events. In 1908, when Bulgaria declared independence, it was Russia that paid off the indemnity owed to the Turks. Culturally, Bulgaria is closer to Russia than is any other Balkan state. It was two Bulgarian monks who gave Russia the Cyrillic alphabet the Soviets use today.
What it all boils down to is that the Soviet bear hug around Bulgaria makes sense. As American diplomats in the Balkans admit, the Soviet Union offers more aid to Bulgaria than the West would ever be prepared to offer.
What has Bulgaria gotten from the Soviets? Plenty.
It gets all its energy needs from the Soviets at concessional rates. In contrast, Romania - as a result of its independent foreign policy - must pay world market prices for oil.
While Romania goes further into debt to Western banks to pay for a nuclear power plant at Cernavoda on the Danube, Bulgaria is getting several such plants from the Soviets. The price? Wine and foodstuffs that the Bulgarians would have trouble marketing in the West.
Bulgaria has the lowest hard-currency debt in East Europe and consequently enjoys a high credit rating among Western bankers. The reason is simply that Bulgaria has borrowed so much from the Soviets. Bulgaria's ruble debt is the second highest in the bloc after East Germany, a state with twice its population. But this does not worry Bulgarians.
An official in the Foreign Ministry in Sofia explained: ''We can pay off our ruble debt indirectly through barter trade with other Eastern European countries.''
The results of economic and political reliance on the Soviet Union in the case of Bulgaria are profound. In 40 years, Bulgaria has doubled and tripled production of every basic commodity and is a major food exporter, producing much more than it needs in many areas - no small feat for a Balkan nation. While much of Eastern Europe has been enduring this winter in dark, unheated cities, Sofia pulses with neon and homes are adequately heated.
In Eastern Europe, personal freedoms are often dependent on the state's economic development. Now that Bulgaria has developed its economy, Bulgarians are enjoying more civil liberties than any other people in the bloc, with the exception of Hungarians. Proportionately, there are more Bulgarians who have visited the West than there are Americans who have visited the communist world.
Bulgarian newspapers are allowed to criticize aspects of domestic policy, and they often do. As resident diplomats are quick to point out, Western theater and art are blossoming in Sofia.
Americans argue that Bulgaria has sacrificed its independence and self-respect for all of this. Bulgarians answer in two ways: (1)They state, rather bluntly, that Bulgarian interests are different from American interests; (2)they explain that freedom has a different meaning in the Balkans than it has in the West.
In the Balkans, freedom means freedom from hunger, from devastation, and from ethnic-inspired violence. For the first time in centuries, Bulgarians are enjoying such freedoms. Yugoslavia and Romania chose different roads for different reasons. Yugoslavia emerged from World War II with a partisan army that had all but defeated the Germans single-handedly before the Soviets even arrived in Belgrade.
Having forged a political and military apparatus of such formidable dimensions, Tito was not about to be dictated to. His break with Stalin led to Yugoslavia adopting a nonaligned status, resulting in equal trade with East and West.
To develop products for Western markets, Yugoslavia borrowed $19 billion from Western banks over the years - $19 billion it can barely afford to repay because many of its products cannot compete with those in Western countries in terms of quality and flexibility of production schedules. Trading with the West sounds nice, but for an underdeveloped Balkan nation with no prior experience, it can be problematic.
In Belgrade now there are shortages of a many items - from coffee to butter to plain old cotton. Western newspapers are hard to find not because of censorship, but because there is not enough foreign currency to import them. Because of strict foreign exchange regulations, Yugoslavs have more trouble traveling to the West than Bulgarians do.
Economic hardships have sparked old ethnic tensions in Yugoslavia. In Kosovo, Albanians have been physically attacking Serbs. In Zagreb, students have been arrested for singing Slovenian nationalist songs. In Bosnia, rival ethnic groups have desecrated one another's graveyards. According to dissident author Milovan Djilas, only Belgrade intellectuals and old communists still think of themselves as Yugoslavs.
Western diplomats in Belgrade and Hungarian academics at a Budapest think tank are worried about the stability of Yugoslavia. They say a Turkish-style coup by the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav Army is not out of the question in a few years. They say a civil war could follow that.
Sadly, after years of trying to hold its own in Western economic markets, Yugoslavia is being forced to do more and more trade with the Soviet bloc, where the conditions are easier and the competition less stiff. Had Yugoslavia traded more with the Eastern bloc all along, its troubles would not be so great as they are at present.
Romania's independent path is perfectly natural, considering it is an intensely nationalist, Latinized country surrounded by Slavic ones. But like Yugoslavia, Romania plunged into the Western trade market long before it was ready, and it, too, is paying the consequences.
Once the breadbasket of Europe and one of the world's first oil-producing nations, Romania now vies with Albania for the distinction of being Europe's poorest country. Bucharest is blacked out at night. People wait hours in the morning for semi-stale bread. All light bulbs are of low wattage, and even they are rationed.
So behind the rhetoric of naive Western politicians who dream of a free Eastern Europe, one must face the reality. And the reality of the Balkans is that what the West has to offer, these countries are not ready yet to accept.