WASHINGTON — THEY used to be dismissed as "puppet states," countries with no mind of their own. Now, in a great irony of history, it is the puppeteer that has exited the world stage, while the ex-Soviet "puppets" of Central and Eastern Europe struggle toward democracy and the promised prosperity of free-market economies.
So far, their road hasn't been an easy one. To varying degrees, all the remaining ex-East Bloc nations have been troubled by nagging political instability. Much of the region remains troubled by high unemployment and paralyzed industrial production.
The region's high hopes of 1989 and '90 have faded. "It will take a full generation before even the Central European nations can be considered secure, stable democracies," predicted J. Brian Atwood, head of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, in a recent speech.
Yet general dissatisfaction with the state of affairs hasn't translated into any nostalgia for the old days of communism. Public-opinion polls show multiparty politics and market economies still have strong support.
By large margins, the people of Eastern Europe "express their overwhelming desire to move forward," said Mr. Atwood.
That doesn't mean they're enjoying the transition. Poland, where political reform began earliest and prices were unfrozen two years ago, is an example.
Voters are apathetic in the country many credit with having sparked the collapse of communism in all its neighbors. Only 42 percent of those eligible cast ballots in last fall's general election.
The Polish parliament is a fractured body of many small parties. With stable coalitions all but impossible, power has been flowing inevitably to the executive - President Lech Walesa.
Even as he feuds with his latest nominee for prime minister, Jan Olszewski, Mr. Walesa is pressing for constitutional changes that would, in effect, allow him to go over a prime minister's head, pick a cabinet himself, and let it rule by decree. In a time of troubles Poland needs decisive government to stick with reforms, he argues.
"Poland may well be an indicator of what may happen in other countries," says Wolfgang Reinicke, a Brookings Institution European specialist.
Bulgaria, for instance, has progressed toward democracy faster than many Western analysts predicted it would. Yet the Bulgarian parliament is largely split between the old Communists, reborn as the Socialist Party, and Union of Democratic Forces reformers. The balance of power is held by a small party that represents ethnic Turks - not a happy situation in a country where anti-Turkish sentiment persists.
In Romania, a split along conservative and reformist lines threatens to divide the ruling National Salvation Front. Miners, fed up with skyrocketing prices and the turmoil of free market reforms, rioted in Bucharest last fall. General elections are still expected in the spring.
Even in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, executives are moving to increase their powers in the face of disillusion. Hungarian Prime Minister Jozsef Antall last month summarily dismissed a popular central bank president, whose sin apparently was to call for more open government. Czech President Vaclev Havel is trying to force through a referendum on Slovakian independence in the belief it will actually help keep his country from splitting in two.
All this turmoil is taking place in the context of perhaps greater turmoil over borders to the east.
The emergence of the Ukraine as an independent nation could reignite historic Polish-Ukrainian tensions. The former Soviet republic of Moldavia might ask for reunification with Romania.
"The changes in the former Soviet Union are far from being just a neutral question for these countries," says Mihaly Simai, a Hungarian economist studying at the United States Institute for Peace.
And while attention focuses on the dire economic plight of former Soviet citizens, things won't be much better in many parts of the old Soviet eastern empire this winter. Across the nations of the region, living standards have fallen by 20 to 50 percent, as production at big state-owned industries stops or stagnates and unemployment skyrockets.
Some Western analysts are pessimistic about further economic shocks. "I think it will get worse before it gets better," says Mr. Reinicke.
Others say the corner has been turned. In Poland, privately owned industry is growing at a 20 percent annual clip, according to the World Bank. Throughout the more-advanced nations of Central Europe lines have disappeared and goods have flooded shops, expensive as they are.
Continued integration of Central and Eastern European nations into Western economic institutions such as the European Community and the International Monetary Fund could be their best hope.