Beginning Oct. 13 it became very much more expensive for a West Germany or anyone else from a noncommunist country to visit friends and relatives in East Germany. Under the old dispensation there had been an average of about 8 million such visits a year. Under the new, the number is expected to shrink drastically.
The connection between this attempt to throttle down on East-West contacts and the dramatic events in August in Poland may not seem obvious at first glance.It is a direct result. It is also probably only the beginning of a slow-motion reaction by Moscow to the Polish story, which has not yet reached its conclusion.
The actual change in the regulations for visits to East Germany si to raise the amount of Western money that must be converted into East German currency in advance of a visit. Previously the prospective visitor had to exchange $3.50 worth of Western money for each day of the visit. On Monday last the requirement went up to $14 worth per day of visit.
In other words the communist government of East Germany is uneasy about the number of Westerners who have been bringing their goodwill and their Western ideas into the communist world run from Moscow.
East Germany's Communist Party leader, Erich Honecker, preceded the change in currency rules by charging that the August workers' strikes in Poland had been inspired from the West. He specifically charged that West Germany has been "constantly interfering" in the internal affairs of East Germany and Poland. Every visitor from the West into the communist countries of Eastern Europe is, of course, a carrier of Western ideas, hence, inevitably, a potential "interference."
The only protection Moscow seems to know against such "interference" is to try to patch up the old Iron Curtain. The immediate aim presumably is to head off or reduce the possibility that East Germans might someday be tempted to reach for the kind of independence the workers of Poland are demanding and reaching for, but have not yet attained.
This weekend is a crucial moment in the Polish story. Poland's free trade union leader, Lech Walesa, is to meet head of state Henryk Jablonski to discuss the delays in registering the new independent worker movement.
In theory, the Polish government has agreed to allow Poland's industrial workers to have independent unions of their own. But that agreement, which was signed on Sept. 3, has yet to be put into formal and official existence. It remains a promise. The granting of the promise was a painful moment for the communist government in Poland. Edward Gierek was party secretary when the promise was made. He lost his job three days later (Sept. 6).
There has been many a purge of party, government, and union organizations since. The old official and totally party- controlled Trade Union Council has nominally dissolved itself.Its members have resigned officially and are attempting to form supposedly independent new unions -- at least a change of livery.
But the courts that have jurisdiction over the licensing or "registration" of institutions have yet to recognize the official existence of the new free union organization set up by the workers themselves. Government and party organizations are dragging their heels, using every possible evasive tactic to stave off the coming into existence of a workers' organization that controls itself instead of being controlled by the party apparatus, which in turn is controlled from Moscow.
The word "socialist" as used in the Soviet-controlled countries of Eastern Europe has long since come to mean control by a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. Any attempt to break the grip of that bureaucracy is considered to be "antisocialist." Moscow wants no "antisocialist" developments within its imperial frontiers.
But what is to be done about this particular outbreak of determined "antisocialist" behavior in Poland? The Polish workers are insisting not only on running their unions themselves. They also want freedom to practice their religion without state interference.They even insist on having their version of current events in their country printed in the government-controlled newspapers.
What happens to the Soviet system if Poland's workers are granted not one, but three, freedoms -- freedom to organize, freedom to religion, and freedom of the press? Could such freedom, if granted in Poland, be prevented from spreading to other countries within the Soviet orbit? They could spread even into the Soviet Union itself, and then what would be left to the Soviet empire?
In the West Moscow is currently seen mostly as an expansionist power seeking to extend its influence into the Middle East, where it might some day be able to control the flow of Arabian oil to the Western world. But how expansionist can Moscow be when it has a problem as dangerous to its system as the one that continues to gnaw at that system in Poland?
The American world role was seriously damaged by the overcommitment of US resources in Vietnam. Moscow is in a degree of trouble right now that could easily be as damaging to its world role. It has unresolved troubles with China that pin down about one-third of its military power in Central Asia. It has an unfinished colonial war in Afghanistan. It must suppress revolt against its system in Poland or risk losing control of its military forefield in Eastern Europe. Its colonial ventures in Angola, Ethiopia, and even in Cuba are shaky. Its greatest success is Vietnam, but that is proving to be expensive.
If the US world role is in trouble, so, too, is Moscow's.