In the decade since the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, human rights in most of the communist East European countries have shown little improvement in either the letter or the spirit of the law. This is a survey of the situation in those nations. Bulgaria: Until recently, Bulgaria rarely featured in Western human-rights reports.
An improved standard of living in recent years, the result of economic reform, together with trade and tourism with the West, has contributed to a more lively and open domestic scene than in neighboring hard-line Romania.
Although writers and artists may find themselves in ideological hot water, they are not sent to prison.
Churches come under pressure, but mostly out of official concern over their increasing appeal to the young. The predominant Bulgarian Orthodox Church is a recognized national guardian of Bulgaria's early culture.
But adherents of Islam, the country's second largest religious community, have had a much tougher time. There are at least 500,000 Muslims in Bulgaria -- possibly many more. Last winter the regime waged a ruthless campaign, sometimes using military force, to ``persuade'' these mainly ethnic Turks to adopt Bulgarian names, forgo public use of their language, and shed their ethnic identity generally.
It is not clear what prompted the action: whether it was the leadership's long-proclaimed drive for ``one unified socialist nation'' or contemporary anxiety about the potential impact of external Muslim fundamentalist propaganda on the nation's Turkish community.
Czechoslovakia: Czechoslovakia vies with Romania for the bleakest human-rights record in Eastern Europe.
The human-rights group Charter 77 made its appearance in January 1977 on the eve of the first Helsinki accords review meeting in Belgrade. The Czechoslovak authorities quickly branded the group's charter an illegal document. The regime began a wave of repression and vilification against its original 241 signatories and the hundreds more who signed in the following months.
Since then, dismissals from jobs, repeated harassment, interrogations, house searches, and detentions that lead to arrest and prison sentences have gone on against members of the group. Still, the members have carried on courageously. When men or women were jailed or cracked under the strain, others quickly took their place.
Last month, the group's leaders announced another 28 people joined Charter 77, all willing to have their names published. Fifteen were workers; others included an agronomist, a photographer, a theater employee, an economist, a technician, and a disabled pensioner.
The charter's purpose is to preserve momentum in active defense of human rights as, in the words of the text, ``assets of civilization'' that all governments should be obliged to honor.
Charter 77 stands out as Eastern Europe's most impressive and best-argued act of dissent and one that is still going strong.
Freedom of thought is sharply controlled in Czechoslovakia. Academics who have been dismissed from their posts and who lecture to innocuous sociological classes in private are subject to penal proceedings. Czech literature has been stultified, with critical writers being jailed, kept under constant police watch, denied publication, or forced into self-exile in the West.
Official hostility to religion is manifested in virulent news-media campaigns and sanctions against individual priests who bravely go on practicing though refused the necessary state license. The regime's apparent fear of a growing turn to the church was evident in its hostile reactions to the July 7 commemoration of the 1,100th anniversary of the death of Methodius at Velehrad. Methodius, with his brother Cyril, brought Christianity into Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
A visit to the celebrations by the Polish-born Pope John Paul II was vetoed, as were visa applications by several Western cardinals who wished to attend, among them Franz Cardinal Koenig, the archbishop of Vienna.
The Prague regime, in fact, stands indicted on almost all counts covered by the Final Act's bill of civil rights. It is an odd distinction for a country with so eminent a tradition in European culture. And curious, too, in light of the fact that its leader, Gustav Husak, suffered long imprisonment during the Stalinist period for his own departure from the party line.
Hungary: The casual air of Hungary's passport-customs officials on the land borders with Austria and the ``nothing to declare'' exit at Budapest's airport -- the only such exit in the East bloc -- are an instructive introduction to the country.
Entry by road to its neighbors, Czechoslovakia and Romania, is a grim, Iron Curtain reception for the traveler, with a rigorous search of his vehicle and a two-hour wait for frontier personnel to stamp his passport.
Hungary has a long-established ``liberal'' image. From time to time the communist leadership reacts sharply against offending authors -- usually when the amount of underground literature leaving the country exceeds the customary and tolerable flow. The warnings are also often addressed to wayward party writers who avail themselves of the relative openness of Hungarian life.
Dissidents, when taken to court, have rarely drawn more than a mild sentence, usually suspended. The six months handed out to a well-known opposition publisher last year was the first of its kind in more than 10 years. But he, too, was put on probation.
Young writers reflecting their generation's dissatisfaction with an only ``half-liberalized'' Hungary may be denied publication. Still, they may be encouraged to accept offers of Western university scholarships. And, unlike dissenters in the rest of the bloc, they are free to go and come home as they please.
Hungarian dissidents are not out to rock the government. Rather, they try to make the authorities widen horizons a bit more than they otherwise might.
First of two articles. Next: human rights in Poland, Romania, and Yugoslavia.