Leading E. Europeans seek both political and economic reform

Poland, says Lech Walesa, is again ``sitting on a powder keg.'' Yugoslavia, says a veteran Communist Party leader, must democratize still more if current wage unrest is to be checked.

And one of the leading aides of Alexander Dubcek, the Czechoslovak reformer ousted in 1968, has poured cold water on the credentials of the present regime to reform even within the limits set by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union.

Yugoslavia is a case by itself, since it is not in the Soviet bloc. Although it is a single-party state, Yugoslavia has long been the front-runner in adapting communist ideology to modern-world reality, particularly when it comes to economics.

But ideology is writing a big political question over Yugoslavia's further headway (and over East bloc reform, as well). That question is whether economic restructuring can be carried to effective, logical ends without accompanying political reform - for a start, genuinely pluralistic consultation over national problems and how to solve them.

The late Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito started that process, but it was always kept within limits. Ever since his death seven years ago, Yugoslav ``liberals'' have been pressing for ``more democracy'' as the key to economic progress. Currently, it has become an ever-hotter political issue amid a wave of strikes.

The same cry is being heard increasingly in Hungary and Poland. And it may be expected in Czechoslovakia, if the regime follows through on its recent verbal embrace of economic change, and even in the Soviet Union.

In Poland, Warsaw's leaders once again face that old potential for explosion: rising prices. They destroyed the Polish leaders of 1970 and 1980. Now Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski has resumed the price adjustment strategy that is the only way to accomplish essential reforms that have existed on paper for five years.

In response to worker protest, the government cut the threatened 13 percent overall increase in food prices to something between 9 and 10 percent, to ease the hardship that would be felt by all but the better-paid workers (like the miners). But costlier food is not the whole story. Gasoline, heat, and electricity are up 25 percent. The coal price is being doubled, which illustrates the whole problem more vividly than anything. For years, coal has been sold at half the production cost.

In short, the gigantic subsidies of the past are coming home to roost in Poland, as they are in Yugoslavia, which, despite 30 years of edging closer to supply-and-demand economics, still carried the burden of cheap (subsidized) food and rents on its ideological banner. For too long, the country's leaders have allowed the profligate spending and mushrooming status ambitions of its republics to operate in staggering disregard of the national interest.

Prime Minister Branko Mikulic softened his recent wage freeze by freezing food prices too. He bluntly warned the recent strikers that his market package is here to stay. The country, he says, must produce more before consuming more.

Poland can never hope to get out of its even worse economic mess without this kind of resolution. It has - on paper - a realistic reform program much along Yugoslav or Hungarian lines. What it doesn't have is the public confidence with which it might get these proposals off the ground. It is increasingly apparent that the government's best chance to gain such confidence is for it to admit Mr. Walesa (the leader of the banned Solidarity trade union) and the moderate view that he has always represented into the consultation process.

Meanwhile, there are doubts about hard-line Prague's sudden ``conversion'' to reform.

Ota Sik, one of the 1960s Prague reformers who has taught economics in Switzerland since 1968, recalled in an interview published here last weekend that 19 years ago Mr. Dubcek set out ``to solve the very problems Mr. Gorbachev now recognizes.'' But, he went on, an improved economy ``cannot be achieved without democratization'' and the free uninhibited exchange of opinion about a country's needs, which is what Dubcek tried to do.

Such a course would mean admitting that the rejection of the 1968 reforms and the condemnation of the reformers as ``enemies of socialism'' were a mistake.

And one doesn't see Prague's Gustav Husak doing that - nor Gorbachev, on his visit there next week, suggesting that he should do that.

The author witnessed and reported all the major upheavals in postwar Eastern Europe from the communist takeover in Czechoslovakia and Tito's break with Moscow in 1948 to the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the Soviet intervention of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the 1980-81 martial-law crisis in Poland.

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