A Paradoxical Reason For Optimism in the East

The sad history of Radio Free Europe may offer larger lessons

THE recent turmoil in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is caused by several factors: The original intention of President Clinton to liquidate these Radios as relics of the cold war they helped to win. The cutting by Congress of their combined budget by two-thirds, which has resulted in the cessation of broadcasting in several East European languages. The disclosure by Sen. Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin of research on corruption and the misuse of funds by the top executives of the Radios. The demonstration of hundreds of employees in front of headquarters in Munich against the plan to move operations to Prague.

All this creates pessimism about the future.

For more than 40 years, RFE/RL was probably the most important and peaceful tool of the democratic world in fighting communist totalitarianism. During this time the Soviet Union and its allies spent five times as much money jamming the Radios than the Radios themselves cost. The actual cost to the United States was minimal: $218 million in RFE/RL's biggest year. It is no accident that Presidents Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, and Boris Yeltsin, along with former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, praised the Radios for their role and pleaded with Mr. Clinton not to destroy them. The situation in the old communist world is still dangerous. Communism can easily be replaced by nationalism and fascism.

Clinton amended his original intention of eliminating the Radios as a tool of the ``cold war.'' Instead he took a half-step - placing the hitherto independent Radios on a path to becoming a subordinate entity of the US Information Agency and promising big budgetary saving (all of $150 million, after several years) as a result of this consolidation.

Everyone who knows the Radios knows this is a step toward liquidation - since there is no point in having two separate and duplicative broadcasting units under the same command.

Unfortunately, despite the misguided intent behind eliminating an allegedly ``right wing'' anti-communist ``cold war'' entity, there are reasons to criticize the Radios. But those reasons have been exploited by ideological opponents of the existence of the Radios, such as Senator Feingold.

For the last 10 years, there developed in the anti-totalitarian institution of RFE/RL some of the same bureaucratic conditions found in the communist world against which the Radios battled. One is reminded of Friedrich Nietzsche's thought that ``he who looks too long down an abyss himself becomes an abyss.''

Thanks to the unusual setup of the RFE/RL - it was broadcast to a heavily jammed private market, making it hard to know who was listening - the company's financial and marketing circumstances were in some respects similar to those of a socialist enterprise.

Over the years, one saw similar traits developing: the rise of a top-heavy bureaucracy; misuse of government funds (the government scale of salaries was replaced by a private corporate scale, with the result that the top two dozen executives of the Radios were paid more than the US president); the rise in the ratio of bureaucrats to journalists from 1:1 in 1983 to 4:1 today; the firing of the most prominent and independent journalists for fear that they might be controversial; the abandonment of the Radios' original mission of delivering ``information and ideas'' in favor of duplicating USIA's and BBC's mission of delivering information, i.e., news; the imposition of heavy-handed political and ideological censorship on the staff in order to avoid controversy.

In short, one can say that even before Clinton's first agenda to get rid of RFE/RL, the future of the Radios was threatenened by its internal developments, which represented nothing so much as a socialist enterprise.

From a simplistic point of view, this long-developing corruption might be cause for even greater pessimism than the mere short-term intention of Clinton and others to shut down the Radios.

But perhaps the opposite is true. For years, the Radios worked under the same conditions as any socialist enterprise. It was a de jure and ``independent'' enterprise that actually operated via federal dollars and de facto structures of government control. In a sense, socialist conditions produced socialist results - despite such Western differences as national origin and political culture.

Actually this may be a paradoxical reason for optimism. If Westerners start acting under ``socialist'' conditions, just like the people in the socialist countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union used to act - then perhaps the people in the former socialist countries, if given paths toward democracy and market reforms, will act like Americans and West Europeans.

This may be a reason for optimism emerging from the tragedy of the destruction of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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