The East's Ongoing Drama

The latest big story out of what used to be called the Communist World is Alexander Lukashenko's grab for power in Belarus. President Lukashenko is suspected of cynically manipulating a Nov. 24 referendum to assure the overwhelming public support needed to change the country's Constitution and consolidate authority in his office.

In another bastion of communist-bred autocracy, Serbia, President Slobodan Milosevic engaged in his own brand of election fixing. Judges controlled by Mr. Milosevic invalidated local council elections - including one in Belgrade, the capital - that favored opposition candidates. Students and other anti-Milosevic forces have taken to the streets in protest.

In contrast, citizens in Romania and Lithuania recently voted in strongly anticommunist governments after years under regimes headed by former Marxists. In Romania, the break with the past seems clean, with newly elected President Emil Constantinescu pledging an end to bureaucratic privilege and a steady ascent from economic ruin. Lithuania's picture has ironic tints, since the exiting former communists had been gung-ho for economic reform and restructuring, following International Monetary Fund guidelines to the letter. The new government, headed by independence leader Vytautas Landsbergis, rejects the "shock" approach to economic revival.

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What's clear from all these cases is the varied evolution of societies that languished for decades under the hammer and sickle. This transformation - whether hopeful or harrowing - remains a central historical drama of our time.

Americans and Western Europeans aren't just spectators but vital players in their own right. Words of encouragement or condemnation, and acts of aid or aloofness, will help shape the drama's theme and climax.

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