ETHIOPIA marches to Marxist drummer, but with Western flair

WHEN Ethiopia's military overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie, the new revolutionary government promised citizens equality, political freedom, and more rapid economic development.

Ten years after that coup, it is possible to make a positive judgment only on the first goal. The military regime has created more equality among Ethiopians through rural and urban land redistribution, widespread nationalization of industries and banks, and confiscation of large properties.

A national literacy campaign, school-expansion program, rural health services , and adult education programs have opened the road to modernization for several million Ethiopians.

But it is evident that the revolutionary government has not delivered on its promises of political freedom and economic development.

Ethiopia's political system is totalitarian. The nation's leadership still calls itself the Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia, (PMGSE) but it has yet to draw up a constitution. It plans to launch a communist party in September to celebrate its 10th anniversary of power.

The military government is trying to crush resistance movements in Eritrea, Tigre, and Gondar provinces - but with little success. It has also clamped down on dissent in Addis Ababa, the capital.

Although the government has initiated some radical economic reforms, it is hard to escape the impression of economic stagnation here. Soviet-style socialism has produced no economic boom.

Many farmers in fertile central and south Ethiopia are not cooperating with a government drive to raise production. The leadership's investment in state farms is not paying off; the projects are highly inefficient. Nationalized industry is performing haphazardly.

Still, Ethiopia is in better shape than many African countries. The International Monetary Fund and the world banking community give it one of the highest credit ratings in the third world. Probably no other African nation has a more varied agricultural potential. And Ethiopia has suffered nothing like the brain drain that has deprived some of its neighbors of much of their skilled manpower.

In raising the aspirations and expectations of Ethiopians, the PMGSE has taken on a much heavier responsibility than Haile Selassie did. But the ally that many had hoped would help this government push for development has not proved forthcoming.

In 1974, the Soviets helped Ethiopia defeat an attack by Somalia, sending in arms and thousands of Cuban troops. But Soviet unwillingness to follow this with economic aid is causing bitterness and disillusionment.

Gratitude to the Soviets for saving Ethiopia from the Somalis is fading. Most of the Cubans have departed, and they are not much missed. It is unclear whether the military leadership shares this view.

PMGSE leader Mengistu Haile Mariam intends to make this country the first fully structured communist state in Africa.

Does this mean Ethiopia is being transformed into a Soviet satellite? What are the country's prospects?

Mengistu's relations with the Russians are a topic for endless speculation. When he went to Soviet President Yuri Andropov's funeral in Moscow last February , Mengistu did not get a private meeting with the presidential heir apparent, Konstantin Chernenko. In Addis Ababa, this was regarded as a snub.

ONLY days earlier, four Americans had been expelled from Addis Ababa and two Soviet diplomats were asked to leave.

Was Mengistu practicing even-handedness? No one in Addis Ababa has a clear answer. The workings of Ethiopia's revolutionary government are at least as mysterious as Haile Selassie's were.

In March Mengistu again visited Moscow, and Cher-nenko played host at a state dinner for him. But the speeches made on that occasion are said to have reflected coolness and perhaps tension between the countries.

''They (the Soviets) could find money for us if they wanted to,'' says a high-level Ethiopian civil servant. ''Of course they have problems, but our government has adopted their system and votes with them in the UN. They like that, but I believe they don't really think they can keep hold of Ethiopia.

''Our people are too individualistic. They don't like Russians. So the Russians don't want to invest here in anything except weapons. They want strategic advantages from us but they don't care if we develop economically or not.''

Most of Ethiopia's economic assistance comes, as it always has, from Western governments and Western-supported international organizations.

Ethiopia is appealing to the West to relieve a huge trade imbalance as well. Market prices for coffee, which accounts for two-thirds of Ethiopia's export earnings, have fallen. Inability to diversify exports or move energetically into Middle Eastern markets for fruit, vegetables, and meat appear to forecast a steadily worsening balance of trade.

To remedy this, the government is trying to attract tourists - particularly Americans and Europeans.

Work continues day and night on an extension that will double the capacity of the Addis Ababa Hilton. A few blocks away, a site overlooking Revolution Square has been cleared for a new Sheraton hotel.

In between these hotels, below Africa Hall, a 12-foot statue of Lenin was recently erected. The statue is far more controversial than the Hilton or Sheraton.

''What did Lenin ever have to do with Ethiopia?'' asks a university professor. ''Our country has never raised statues to foreign leaders.''

Another indication that Ethiopians do not eagerly embrace Soviet-style socialism is a relatively quiet but open practice of religion. A stone's throw away from the statue of Lenin, the neo-Byzantine Church of St. Stephen, like many others, fills quickly with Sunday worshipers young and old. Islam, to which perhaps 30 percent of Ethiopians adhere, is thriving, too. The pride Ethiopians take in their religion and their history is apparent in every remark guides make at tourist sites.

The north remains a gnawing problem for the military government. Resistance movements in Eritrea, Tigre, and Gondar provinces are flourishing.

''The Tigre Popular Liberation Front, like its older Eritrean counterpart, is now dominated by Christians whose Marxism is largely a ploy to embarrass the PMGSE,'' says an Italian long familiar with northern Ethiopia. Muslims in both these movements, he insists, serve as window-dressing to attract funds from conservative Arab states. Like so much else in revolutionary Ethiopia, these evaluations seem contradictory. The government has lost more ground to rebels in Eritrea. But here, too, there are anomalies. Eritreans still live and work all over Ethiopia. Propaganda aside, few Eritreans seem to be committed to separatism. They are ready for a political settlement. The same is said to be true of Tigre.

In general, the government's policies toward peasants are not working, as is often the case with communist- style governments. Farmers in the center and south of the country at first responded enthusiastically to Mengistu's sweeping land reform. They planted more, took better care of their crops, and reaped bumper harvests. Even 1983 was a good crop year.

BUT farmers are unhappy about selling their produce to the government at low prices. And if they do sell it, they find few consumer goods to buy.

''Private farmers are eating well but see no reason to increase production,'' a European agricultural specialist says.

This expert says the government ''is putting most of its agricultural investment into huge state farms where it hopes to produce the grain needed to feed the cities and parts of the country affected by overpopulation and famine.'' But he is skeptical that the high operating costs of the state farms can be brought down.

In the north, peasants resisted land reform. There were few large landlords here. Farmers rebuffed central government interference.

Even in the rich agricultural province of Gojjam, where there has been less rebelliousness recently and the potential for agro-industry is enormous, there has been little new development.

''I can't understand why the Russians haven't built a couple of model factories here,'' says a visiting US technician of Bahar Dar, a modern planned city at the southeastern corner of Lake Tana. Bahar Dar has access to a plentiful supply of electric power from the Blue Nile Falls. It has a Soviet-operated polytechnic institute. But the only industry in the area is a textile mill built in the early 1960s with aid from India. The Czechs are said to be starting work on a vegetable oil plant.

''The country is not developing; productivity is falling. More and more economic activity is slipping out of control of the government and going underground,'' says an ambassador who has been here more than five years.

''Their (Ethiopia's) response is more regulations, more nationalizations, more slogans - all they are really doing is making more jobs for bureaucrats.''

A government spokesman disputes this judgment: ''Government officials are working harder than ever to serve the people. Many skilled people who fled abroad have returned and many people who were imprisoned have been released and given good jobs.''

He is at least partly right. Ethiopia has experienced nothing like the brain drain that has deprived Sudan and Somalia of much of their skilled manpower. Universities here keep turning out young people eager for jobs.

Tension with Sudan has many Ethiopians worried. Neither country has territorial claims on the other. But both find it hard to block rebels from using their territory. Each seems to be abetting the other's rebels.

Ethiopia's greatest fear is that the conflict with Sudan could lead to confrontation with the United States and West Germany, which back Sudanese President Jaafar Nimeiry. This could have economic consequences.

The European Community, which provides more than $100 million per year, is the largest aid donor, followed by the World Bank. West Germany, Italy, Canada, Sweden, and France provide developmental funds. Large Italian credits, promised by the previous Christian Democratic government, have not been doled out by Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, who reportedly has little sympathy for Ethiopia's style of socialism.

West Germany is planning no new aid after present projects are completed next year. US developmental aid was terminated in 1979 because of controversy over compensation for nationalized investments, but the US has continued to give Ethiopia food and medicine and has stretched definitions to provide vehicles for transporting grain to remote famine-stricken regions.

US humanitarian aid has averaged about $10 million per year. Many private US and European groups also contribute. Ethiopians are well aware that the Russians provide no help for refugees or famine victims.

Ethiopia's chief trading partners are the Soviet Union, the US, and Italy. The Soviets supply all Ethiopia's oil at world market prices. But Moscow's refusal to give Ethiopia favorable price treatment on oil continues to rankle. The United States buys up to one-third of Ethiopia's coffee. Italian vehicles and machinery are preferred over imports from communist countries. Italian canned goods occupy first place on Addis Ababa supermarket shelves, although there is little choice among goods. Fresh local meat and fish are plentiful, however.

Government efforts to use tourism to trim the trade imbalance are beginning to work. Travelers - mostly Europeans but some Americans, too - are coming back.

They are visiting Gondar, the old imperial capital, and staying at the recently opened Goha Hotel on a mountain overlooking the city, one of the most dramatic sites in all Africa. And they are taking in Ethiopia's national parks, which seem to have come through the revolution unscathed, in contrast to the experience in many other African countries.

THE great imperial compound in Gondar, where each 17th- and 18th-century Ethiopian emperor built a castle, is being restored. A short distance west of Gondar, the old church of Debra Tsehay (Mountain of the Sun) has been rebuilt. The nearby ruins of the Empress Mentuab's castle have been cleared.

On the opposite side of the city, the most famous of its 44 churches, Debra Berhan Selassie (Church of the Trinity of the Mountain of Light), stands in a eucalyptus-shaded garden surrounded by walls and towers. It has been refurbished with UNESCO funds.

Travelers to national parks may see the unique mountain nyala and the rare Menelik bushbuck, which have increased in numbers. In the early 1970s, a visitor was fortunate to see three or four nyala in a day.

Travel to the high Simeon is temporarily suspended because of uncertain security conditions, but the equally spectacular Bale Mountains National Park in the southeast is open to visitors.

Almost all visitors will see Addis Ababa. The city remains the capital of Africa. Only a few new buildings have been completed since the revolution, but new streets have been paved and the capital makes a clean, cosmopolitan impression. The Organization of African Unity maintains a large staff here. And East Europeans and Soviets are less visible than the thousands of diplomats attached to 53 foreign embassies and UN agencies.

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