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The struggle for Eastern Europe

By John Hughes / December 20, 1985



IT would be intriguing to be a fly on the wall, or even that new dog in the Oval Office, as George Shultz reports to President Reagan on his visit to Eastern Europe. The impressions the secretary of state has gained will have an important bearing on a key new aspect of the administration's foreign policy: how to exploit opportunities for the West in Eastern Europe.

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The communist-bloc countries have long intrigued Mr. Shultz. He has been quietly studying them, and he has met with some of their leaders when they attended such gatherings as the United Nations General Assembly in New York. He has been interested in visiting Eastern Europe before this, but only now has the timing seemed appropriate.

The Soviet news agency Tass has sniffed rather stuffily about the Shultz trip to Romania, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. But the Soviets can hardly complain. They have been seeking for years to influence events in the countries of Western Europe. They put on a vigorous effort to prevent West European countries from installing cruise and Pershing 2 missiles. They mobilized a blatant campaign, which backfired, to affect the outcome of West Germany's elections. They have long sought to stir up the West European peace movement, while clamping down on even the most fledgling, spontaneous peace movements in their own country.

Mikhail Gorbachev has visited Britain and France and not too subtly sought to pry them away from their alliance with the United States. Other Soviet visits to West European countries are planned, and the goal is to weaken Western unity and erode West European support for such American projects as the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Till now, reverse American diplomacy in Eastern Europe has been hobbled by Moscow's firm grip on many of its client states. But with the prospect of reduced tension between Moscow and Washington, the door has opened a chink for the pursuit of American diplomacy in some of those countries.

Moscow knows that American options are limited. The US will defend Berlin; the record of the Berlin airlift, plus the pledges of many US states- men since then, makes this assured.

When the regime in Poland, doing Moscow's bidding, acts the way it has in recent years, it will get the cold shoulder from the United States. Other nations are similarly repelled. Even the recent Jaruzelski visit to Paris was treated with the glacial aloofness the French are so capable of mobilizing for disagreeable political visitors.

But having said all this, the Soviets know that no military legions from the West are going to liberate their Eastern European satrapies and that the options open to the West lie among diplomacy, trade, and cultural exchanges.

Some countries in Western Europe, busily probing in Eastern Europe themselves, have long been urging similar probes upon the United States. Mr. Shultz probably heard such arguments reaffirmed during his stopovers in London and Bonn. With the new mood in US-Soviet relations, the time has come for the administration to decide how to proceed.

To some, the policy of successive American administrations toward Eastern Europe has seemed perplexing. Washington is harsh to some Eastern European countries; to others it is more benign. But aren't they all communist countries and shouldn't they be treated the same? Well, no. The policy of ``differentiation,'' as it is called, makes sense. To those bloc countries like Romania and Hungary, which have seemed more open to the West, the US has been more generous in terms of trade preferences. It's the ca rrot-and-stick approach.

A complication, in Romania's case, is that, although it is more relaxed toward the US than other bloc countries, it is one of the more repressive internally. Mr. Shultz made clear on his recent visit that Romania has to do better on the human rights front.

Nobody should overrate the possibilities that lie ahead. Although Mr. Shultz has repeated the American viewpoint that the division of Europe is not permanent, Moscow is not about to set free its minion states. But as they keep a careful eye on the mood in Moscow, some East Europeans may be ready for a little more fraternization with the West.