East Europeans Learn the Ropes Of Democracy

KAREL DYBA used to wear jeans to his job in an obscure economic forecasting institute. Today, as the economy minister for the Czech Republic, he wears pin-stripe suits to work, commands a staff of several hundred, and works from a spacious office on the top floor of an imposing ministerial building.

But Mr. Dyba has no time for quiet satisfaction. He looks at the pile of papers on his desk, sinks into his chair, and sighs. He says he works 18 hours a day because much of his staff is incompetent.

"I find it hard adapting to this minister stuff," he says. "My staff are Bolsheviks, used to taking orders and not responsibility."

Many of the country's new officials, catapulted from obscurity to prominence, seem torn by similar fatigue and frustrations. It was easy to bring down the Communists, they say. It is much harder to build something new, to write, discuss, and pass the hundreds of laws needed to build a thriving market economy and a solid democracy.

While communism left a heavy bureaucratic legacy, Westerners would be wrong to conclude that it snuffed out all democratic training. Well before the dramatic revolutions in 1989 that ousted communist leaderships through the region, East Europeans had developed grass-roots organizations to wrest freedoms from totalitarian regimes. They founded independent trade unions, pacifist organizations, environmental associations, and human rights groups such as Czechoslovakia's Charter 77.

Dissidents such as Jiri Dienstbier, a former stoker who is now foreign minister, were better prepared for their new jobs than many might expect. As a leader of Charter 77, Mr. Dienstbier defied frequent prison terms and constant surveillance by security police to meet ambassadors and visiting Westerners.

"Jiri had more diplomatic training than most foreign ministers," says his good friend Jarolsav Jiru, foreign editor of the daily Lidove Noviny. "He lived, breathed, and thought diplomacy."

In power, Dienstbier, Dyba, and others say they need time to build a democratic civil service. "You can't just wave a magic wand and find hundreds of well-trained diplomats," Dienstbier explains. "This is a long process."

An even harder task is deciding how to hold people responsible for collaboration with Communists. A parliamentary commission instructed to uncover secret police collaborators denounced a former dissident, Jan Kavan, without releasing the evidence against him, allowing defenders to testify on his behalf, or permitting him to appeal the judgment. Mr. Kavan has filed a law suit for slander and threatened to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights. "The revolution is beginning to devour its ow n

children," Mr. Kavan charges. "We still need to establish basic legal structures."

Such structures need to be backed by the other checks and balances of democracy: political parties, a vigorous free press, and an elected parliament. Almost everyone here agrees on these goals. The issue is timing.

Some say Eastern Europe faces so many problems - rising unemployment, falling living standards, the threat of a collapse in the Soviet Union - that the region cannot afford political bickering. To weather difficult times, this argument goes, the region needs broad coalition governments of national unity.

But across the region, long suppressed tensions have resurfaced. In Poland, Solidarity's strong coalition of workers and intellectuals has collapsed. Many of the original leaders of Romania's National Front have quit the organization and accused it of totalitarian tendencies. Bulgaria's coalition government is close to paralysis. And animosity between Serbs and Croats threatens to plunge Yugoslavia into civil war.

In Czechoslovakia, the Velvet Revolution's honeymoon of shared struggle has ended. Vaclav Maly, a Civic Forum founder, laments the movement's recent split into the right-wing Conservative Civic Movement and left-leaning Social Democratic Citizen's Movement.

"This happened at the worst time, when everything is in transition, when one wants to change the economy, to change the political structures, to change everything," he says. "We need a strong government."

BUT others say Civic Forum's collapse was necessary to prevent a new dictatorship.

"A very broad movement no longer is possible, it's dangerous," says Josef Jansky, of the Citizen's Movement. "If we want to have a democracy of the Western type, we cannot wait. We must begin developing real political parties."

The Civic Movement, which pushes for radical free-market reforms, is dominated by ex-academics such as Dyba. The social democrats, who support a stronger welfare net, are dominated by ex-dissidents such as Dienstbier.

Yet both sides agree on the basics: They support the rule of law and creation of the market economy. So for now, the two parties remain united in government, but many say that a purge against Civic Movement is imminent.

"The politicking certainly is tiring," Dyba admits. "But isn't that the way things happen in a democracy?"

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