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Reformers Set Fast Pace

Poland and Hungary turn from Communist Party supremacy

By William EchiksonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 21, 1989


KALMAN KULCSAR is plotting to overthrow communism. The mild-mannered law professor doesn't look like a rabble rouser. He speaks softly, precisely, with the charm and polish of an elegant Hapsburg aristocrat. But since being named Hungary's minister of justice last year, he has written a new Constitution which calls for free democratic elections by early next year. In his Baroque office, Mr. Kulcsar wonders out loud whether to introduce a British-style majority vote in districts or an Italian-style proportional system.

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``We probably will have some sort of combination - districts and a list,'' like in West Germany, he says. ``Both would be normal Western-type competitive elections.''

SOLIDARITY spokesman Janusz Onyszkiewicz is caught up in the same struggle. Until recently, he was summoned for daily interrogations at the Interior Ministry. Before each session, he gathered a packet of clothes from his cramped Warsaw apartment. ``I don't know whether I'll be back in 10 minutes or 10 years,'' he would say.

This June, Mr. Onyszkiewicz became a deputy in the new Polish parliament. When President Bush visited Warsaw in July, Onyszkiewicz sat at the same table as his former jailer, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, making small talk and sipping champagne.

``If one takes into account that a year ago I was in prison, this is a kind of change,'' Onyszkiewicz says, looking a bit dazed. ``We must now build a new democracy together.''

EASTERN EUROPE'S old totalitarian system is under siege, and the struggle for a new power-sharing formula is just beginning.

In Hungary and Poland, where the prospect of economic ruin and political catastrophe is great, reform has gone the furthest. In Czechoslovakia and East Germany, not to mention the two Balkan backwaters, Bulgaria and Romania, political and economic pressure is weaker, and reform remains tentative or nonexistent.

But all of these countries living under Soviet domination are unstable. At almost regular 12-year intervals, East Europeans have fought for their freedom. Hungarians lobbed Molotov cocktails at Soviet tanks in 1956, Czechoslovaks invented ``socialism with a human face'' in 1968, and Polish workers laid down their tools for Solidarity in 1980.

Today's crisis is the deepest yet. Dissent is increasing. Communist Parties in the region report a mass exodus. In Hungary, the Communists cannot find candidates to fill vacant posts of local secretaries; in Poland, the number of party members at Warsaw University, with 15,000 students, is less than a dozen.

Evaluations of the region's economic condition range from serious to catastrophic. Socialism, the ideological foundation of the Soviet alliance, is sinking in a morass of falling living standards, bankrupt social welfare systems, and soaring pollution hazards.

This profound internal malaise is sharpened by a startling external factor: the new Soviet leadership. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union for the first time not only is refusing to intervene in Eastern European affairs, it is encouraging once unthinkable reforms.

``We are witnessing the collapse of the ancien r'egime,'' explains Janos Kis, the leader of the Hungarian opposition party, the Free Democrats. ``The old ruling party is in the process of falling apart.''

Managing this transition from dependence to independence, from limited sovereignty to sovereignty, all without upsetting Europe's stability represents perhaps the greatest challenge in international affairs.