FOR Vaclav Havel, reform-minded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev represents no savior. The neighborhood greengrocer does. In a book published this year called ``Living in Truth,'' Mr. Havel, Czechoslovakia's leading dissident intellectual, tells the story of a manager of a fruit and vegetable shop. Among the onions and carrots, he puts in his window the slogan ``Workers of the world, unite!''
Nobody believes in the slogan, but if the manager refused to display it, he would be demoted, he would lose the chance of spending his holidays in Black Sea resorts, and his children would not be able to go to university. Out of fear, he keeps the slogan in his window.
If positive change is to come in the Soviet bloc, Mr. Havel told the Monitor in his Prague apartment, the grocer must take down the false sign and begin ``living in truth.''
Unlike Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, other leading East European dissident writers join Havel in expressing skepticism about Mr. Gorbachev. Instead of change coming from above, Adam Michnik and Miklos Haraszti, interviewed recently by the Monitor in Warsaw and Budapest, count on change coming from below. They stress that the individual must stand up in public and speak the truth if communism is to be reformed.
This idea of ``living in truth'' is often dismissed in the West as intellectual posturing. But Havel and his friends explain that Westerners understand little what it means to live in a system that they say is founded in hypocrisy, which governs through force and yet claims to base its rule on popular support, which signs human rights declarations and then censors, harasses, and jails its critics.
Havel, Mr. Michnik, and Mr. Haraszti are all writers unable to publish in their homelands. They endure constant surveillance by the secret police. Both Havel and Michnik have spent years in jail for their human rights activities, Michnik as a leader of the now-banned independent trade union Solidarity and Havel as a founding member of Charter 77, his country's leading dissident group.
In such an atmosphere, Havel says, ``the weight of truth is bigger than in the West.'' The truth, he said, will inevitably lead Soviet-bloc citizens into open confrontation with their governments. To understand this concept, the Westerner must understand what Havel and his friends consider the true tragedy of their countries: how communism destroyed open criticism in public and forced the individual to retreat into his personal life.
This retreat has taken place throughout Eastern Europe, albeit differently in each country because of the huge diversity of national experiences. In relatively liberal, market-oriented Hungary, Haraszti criticizes the professionals, the doctors, the lawyers, the scientists, who have given up their careers to make more money as taxi drivers and restaurateurs.
In politically volatile Poland, Michnik worries about the huge number of factory workers, who have joined the new government-sponsored trade union after losing faith in Solidarity.
Czechoslovakia is perhaps worst off. Since 1968, Havel says, the normally voluble, critical Czechs and Slovaks have invested their energies in building small country cottages, to which they flee every weekend, while letting the nation drift under the direction of a team of aging leaders.
From this perspective, Havel says, it matters little whether Gorbachev forces his fellow East European communists to follow his lead and press for glasnost (openness), greater tolerance of public debate, and multicandidate elections and secret ballots.
What matters is whether Gorbachev's example encourages East Europeans to stop lying and begin to speak out in public, he says.
Is ``the truth'' emerging? Havel and his friends see reason for tempered optimism.
``Gorbachev gives us some space,'' says Havel. ``I speak to people - not just Chartists and dissidents - ordinary people, and once again they are interested in what's happening. They are listening to the radio and reading newspapers.''
As a concrete example, Havel cites a recent event ignored in the Western press. ``For the first time, about 20 young theater directors published a manifesto two weeks ago asking that the blacklisting of writers stop,'' Havel says.
In neighboring Hungary, such hopes are fact under the liberal leader, Janos Kadar. During the past few months, independent writers have taken over the official writers' union. ``The party is feeling the pressure from below,'' says Haraszti.
Michnik's Poland feels the most pressure from below. Independent thinking is established through the Roman Catholic Church, with its schools and cultural activities. Instead of the emergence of a new Solidarity, Michnik sees independent-minded people slowly creating their own civil structures, parallel to present state structures. How this process will turn out, Michnik and his friends do not know. ``I'm not a prophet,'' Michnik says.
They only know what will not work: violence. Their reasons are both practical and moral. Reviewing the armed suppression in 1956 in Hungary, in 1968 in Czechoslovakia, and in 1981 in Poland, all realize that the state holds the weapons and the will to use them. But they also believe that violence corrupts, and that violence and hatred, and above all, lies, are the methods of their oppressors.
To be successful, then, Michnik, Haraszti, and Havel say change in Eastern Europe must consist of a slow scraping away of state power. None predict the emergence of Western-style democracy or the destruction of the Communist Party. Such acts, all agree, would be foolhardy, provoking yet another crackdown, either by Moscow or its local henchmen.
Because the West is unable to free Eastern Europe from Soviet hegemony, Havel and his friends expect little from Western diplomacy designed to improve their lot. In particular, they are skeptical about any imminent arms agreement with the Soviet Union, because, in their view, the real danger to peace comes from the political reality behind nuclear missiles, not the missiles themselves.
Havel explains this idea most clearly. In his view, until East European countries are at peace with themselves, until they respect human rights and enjoy popular support, they will be unstable and represent a danger to their neighbors. Havel tells Western peace movements that the key to a lasting genuine peace between East and West must lie in working toward greater respect for human rights and civil liberties in Eastern Europe. Before disarmament, the struggle for human rights must be a priority.
``You can't change the situation in our country, but you must realize that our problems are also your problems,'' Havel says. Remember, he writes to Westerners who fail to recognize the importance of human rights, ``if the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth.''