EAST GERMANY'S leaders last week gave into the people's demand for free travel by opening the borders and the Berlin Wall. That breathtaking act - one of terrific cultural impact - may have bought the Krenz regime a bit of time. But the East German government still faces a complicated demand: Free elections. East Germans continue to march in the streets by the hundreds of thousands, and they want more than symbolic change. Expectations have risen. With borders open, the East German leaders know if they are to keep their people at home, they must show they are serious about reform, including free elections.
Change is under way. The entire hard-line Council of Ministers resigned last week; the Politburo was overhauled. This week, Hans Modrow, a leading reformer, was approved as the new premier. At the same time, the parliament elected a noncommunist, Guenther Maleuda of the Peasant block party, as speaker. East German leader Egon Krenz has promised elections, and the party congress to be held in December will be instrumental in outlining a path in that direction.
Orderly movement toward free elections in East Germany will take time. The country is a major industrial power - the most efficient and productive in the East bloc. After 40 years of Leninist-Stalinist rule, East Germany can't switch to a liberal democracy overnight. For one thing, there is as yet no serious alternative political organization - no Solidarity. The opposition group, New Forum, is still a fledgling grass-roots movement. The parties traditionally aligned with the Communists (Peasants, Liberals, et al.) want to be reformist but are still largely peopled by hard-liners.
There's also a constitutional problem. Currently, by law, the Communist Party must have the ``leading role'' in East Germany, regardless of elections. A new constitution is required.
There are, however, interim moves Krenz can and ought to make to keep reform going and ease grass-roots tension:
Set up a meeting with West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl on economic assistance.
Reduce and deemphasize the ``Stasis,'' the hated (and abundant) secret police.
Legalize alternative parties. New Forum is recognized but not yet legal. The trade unions and other parties ought to be free to break from the Communist Party.
Liberalize the press. Until recently, even some Soviet journals were banned.
Make an immediate short-term gesture toward consumers. One analyst suggests importing 50,000 VCRs for the holidays.
Reform in East Germany will be complicated, but it must go on.