Are we next? That's the question East-bloc leaders are asking nervously on the first anniversary of Mikhail Gorbachev's ascension to power. Although the answer is unclear, East-bloc officials believe the Soviet leader may want to follow up his own housecleaning of aging apparatchiks with a similar housecleaning in Eastern Europe.
If so, the time is approaching. Four East European nations -- Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, East Germany, and Poland -- plan Communist Party congresses in the next three months. There has been speculation that some of the party bosses may use the occasions to ``retire.''
``We're waiting anxiously,'' one East-bloc diplomat says. ``For change, it must come from Moscow.''
With his power base secure at home, Mr. Gorbachev may move to shake up his bloc allies.
Except for Poland's Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the bloc leaders all have been in power more than a decade and, in many ways, they are associated with the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
``How the succession is handled will tell a lot about Soviet designs in the area,'' says Charles Gati, an East European affairs specialist at Columbia University. ``Jockeying for power is under way.''
The result of this jockeying remains unclear. Communist leaders have a way of hanging on past their prime. And if leadership shifts do take place, they may lead to more vigor, but as in Mr. Gorbachev's case, few fundamental policy shifts. A quick look at the specific cases:
Czechoslovakia. Under ultraconservative rule, its advanced economy is stagnating. The population, while not restive, seems somnolent. To reinvigorate the country, 73-year-old Gustav Husak could be forced to step down at the party congress that opens March 24. The push might be gentle. Mr. Husak may give up his powerful job as party leader while retaining the more ceremonial post of president. But other factors weigh against such a transition. First, Husak has no obvious successor. And second, a shake-up might bring a renaissance of interest in reforms talked of during the Prague Spring, the revolt that the Soviets crushed in 1968.
Bulgaria. The Bulgarians remain the surest of Soviet allies. In addition, successors to 75-year-old Todor Zhivkov have been groomed and could conceivably take over at the April congress.
Gorbachev is known to be displeased with Mr. Zhivkov. In an interview last July, the Soviet ambassador in Sofia criticized Bulgaria for its recent poor economic performance and for the quality of its exports to the Soviet Union. In an October visit, Gorbachev himself said he had uncovered ``a few sharp edges'' in relations between the two countries.
If Zhivkov leaves, a conservative replacement would be 66-year-old Prime Minister Grisha Filipov. Younger possibilities include 49-year-old Chudomir Aleksandrov and 48-year-old Ognyan Doynov. Both were highly visible during Gorbachev's October visit.
East Germany. Gorbachev is known to admire the efficiency of its industry and the quality of its exports. Why, then, does talk continue of retirement for 73-year-old Erich Honecker? Perhaps Mr. Honecker himself wants to hand over power to his younger, very Gorbachev-ish dauphin, 54-year-old Egon Krenz.
All these transitions would be delicate. While the Soviets surely might like their allies to do better economically, analysts such as Professor Gati suggest that what they value most is stability. Only where that stability can be assured, the analysts say, is there a chance for an early succession.
Thus, an irony. Amid all the speculation about imminent leadership changes, continuity is likely only in Poland, the most volatile of East European countries. Its own party congress is scheduled for June, and General Jaruzelski is almost sure to stay on as party leader.