EVEN the experienced and flexible politician as Mikhail Gorbachev, with enormous popularity around the globe, is often at a loss and uncomfortable when visiting communist countries in Eastern Europe. There he seems to like departures much more than arrivals. Rather than trying to interfere directly in the risky business of East European politics, Mr. Gorbachev is increasingly limiting his performance there to delicate balancing acts. For example, faced in East Germany by a volatile atmosphere created by the massive exodus of young East Germans to West Germany and the demands of those who stayed for political reform, Gorbachev tried to dissociate himself from Erich Honecker, the unpopular former East German leader. But he did so with the utmost caution and urged young East Germans to be patient.
Yet the time is over when both the people and politicians in Eastern Europe tried to closely analyze Gorbachev's maneuvering and to act accordingly. Pressures from below and domestic calculation of politicians are more important factors shaping East Europe's future than changing moods in the Kremlin. Shortly after Gorbachev left East Berlin, Mr. Honecker lost his job and was replaced by Egon Krenz. While the political intentions of the new leader are unclear, the message the East German people sent to the Communist Party is not.
The main question now is not whether mounting domestic problems will force East Germany and other orthodox communist countries to adopt reforms, but when - and what type of reforms might work best.
Developments in Poland and Hungary suggest that it is not reforms of communism but development of a more effective noncommunist system that the most active political forces in those countries want. No sooner had Hungarian communists decided to dissolve their organization and create the Hungarian Socialist Party, pledging allegiance to a market economy and multiparty democracy, than the parliament in Hungary heavily amended the constitution. It states now that the Republic of Hungary is an independent democratic state ``in which the values of bourgeois democracy and democratic socialism prevail in equal measures.''
No wonder that these developments have seduced many in the West into complacency exactly at a time when decisive action is urgently needed.
The plain fact is that while the demise of traditional communism seems inevitable, the success of the reformers, not to mention final victory of democracy and a free market in Eastern Europe, cannot be taken for granted. Neither Gorbachev nor more radical reformers in Poland and Hungary have been able to convince the people thus far that they will be able to manage the economy better than their predecessors. In fact, the economic situation is deteriorating more rapidly in reformist than in unreformed countries.
An influential communist ideologue in East Berlin, Otto Reinhold, openly ridiculed Soviet reformers' ``illusions about a free market'' and their expectation that it will solve all their problems. He also dismissed the idea that democracy and glasnost were preconditions for economic improvements. In Mr. Reinhold's view, this Gorbachev recipe ``has clearly failed.''
Other East European hard-liners are equally pessimistic about the future prospects of reprivatization plans in Poland and Hungary and predict their inevitable failure. They point out that while reformers in the USSR and Eastern Europe go in one direction, advocating reprivatization and, therefore, fragmentation of the economy, the United States, Japan, and Western Europe go in another direction and support the process of fast economic integration.
It is very tempting to dismiss pessimistic prognoses of the conservatives as their biased wishful thinking. Closer look at developments in the region illustrates, however, that reformers everywhere are being overwhelmed by enormous problems, and many of them have lost much of their initial self-confidence and optimism.
A new minister of the Polish Central Planning Office with roots in Solidarity, Jerzy Osiatynski, admitted as much in his recent interview with Austrian television. ``Frankly,'' he said, ``our economic situation is really deplorable. Only recently I received statistics of our economic situation which were not retouched. Only now I know what our energy balance will look like this year and what we will be facing. Yesterday there was a moment - please excuse this highly unpolitical statement - when I simply did not know out of which window of my office I should jump.''
Not only is the economic situation in the USSR, Poland, and Hungary worse than originally anticipated, but the reformers' ability to change it fast is more questionable than ever. Shortly after it came to power, for example, the Solidarity-led government of Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki declared that halting inflation was its main economic task. Yet it has become abundantly clear that much more Western help will be needed before the government dares to let a free market reign in Poland.
There is no doubt that communism in the East lost in the global competition with democracy and a free market in the West. In Eastern Europe, however, the fight is still going on. Until very recently the West has been much more fascinated by decline of communism than by thinking about what might replace it. One can only hope that contemplated new US and Western help would be enough to ensure that democracy and a free market would not become victims in Eastern Europe again.