Mikhail Gorbachev's democracy is Erich Honecker's nightmare. But not quite for the reasons one might think. It's certainly not that Mr. Honecker's East Germany is more repressive or its economy less successful or its foreign policy less open to the West than the Soviet Union's.
On the contrary, until half a year ago or so Soviet leaders cited the East German economy as an efficient model for their own reforms. East Germans are far freer than Soviet citizens in terms of access to information, contact with Westerners, expression of unorthodox private views, consumer choice, and emigration.
As one West German who lived for years in East Berlin put it, ``When Gorbachev preaches `openness,' I must say ... in 15 years Soviet citizens will not have as much openness as [East Germans] have today!''
What makes Honecker nervous enough to have censored some of Gorbachev's calls for ``openness'' and ``democratization'' in the East German press is the word ``democracy,'' says the West German, after years as an official in the West German mission in East Berlin.
``Democratization in Moscow means making the system more effective. Gorbachev says there will be elections with more than one candidate. In the Soviet Union that means you choose the better of two communist candidates. But in the GDR [the German Democratic Republic or East Germany] what people mean by `democracy' is the Western parliamentary system, nothing less,'' he says.
``It means the Weimar Republic [the interwar democracy in Germany before Hitler came to power]. It means right and left and people getting voted out of office.... Democracy for German communists is a much more dangerous word than for Russians. The GDR is in Central Europe. They are Germans. For us Germans democracy, even when we didn't have it, meant in principle the same thing it means for Frenchmen, Englishmen, or Americans.... Democracy in Germany means you can vote Honecker out of office, not that you can decide between Honecker and Krenz.'' Politburo member Egon Krenz is widely tipped as Honecker's eventual successor.
``Besides, the GDR has a weak point,'' the West German added. ``It must cope with the Federal Republic [West Germany]. All GDR leaders bring a certain caution to this. They have fears. We are the largest German-speaking state. We are attractive for [East Germans]. No one can say what would happen with the greater openness that the Soviet Union says it wants. But in the GDR they think the people might one day want to become citizens of the Federal Republic and say, `Let's do away with everything.'''
One East German academic currently visiting West Berlin suggested another reason for the lack of need to emphasize Gorbachev-style reform in East Germany.
After first denying that East German officials are fearful of Gorbachev's changes, he added, ``Anyway, we did not make the same mistakes that [ex-Soviet leader Leonid] Brezhnev made.... Therefore, we don't have the same need [as the Soviet Union] to correct things.''
Corroborating that viewpoint in the economic field, the West German official elaborated on the centralized efficiency that has made East Germany the most successful of the East European economies - and the one that the Soviet Union seeks to get its resistant workers to emulate much more than the socialist market experimentation of Hungary.
The reason the Soviets have stopped applauding the East German economy in public, the West German thought, had far less to do with the domestic system than with international economic frictions and the Soviet demand that East Germany export its best products to the Soviet Union rather than to the West.
In foreign policy, too, he noted, ``The differences aren't that great between Gorbachev and Honecker. Gorbachev now conducts Honecker's foreign policy [of d'etente]. It was Gorbachev ... [who] said the Federal Republic must be punished for deploying American missiles [three years ago]. Honecker said no. But when [Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard] Shevardnadze comes to the Federal Republic this year, it will be just what Honecker urged. He can sit back and say, `Finally you have come around. I said three years ago there should be dialogue. I said the American missiles must be negotiated with Americans, not with Germans.'''
The one area where East Germany is more cramped than the Soviet Union is in public criticism, the West German continued. ``In the Soviet Union one can be more open about criticism than in the GDR. Even Brezhnev - not just Gorbachev - criticized Soviet practice. Honecker never did that with the GDR. He just said everything was wonderful.... The cursed Prussian communists will never say anything negative.''