Polish police have demonstrated, through brutal force, the limits of reform policies. Black-clad anti-terrorist police broke into a Krakow steel plant before dawn yesterday, seizing Solidarity leaders and ending a 10-day strike. They reportedly entered by smashing a gate with a vehicle and then using loud percussion grenades and tear gas to overcome the strikers.
Tension also mounted in Gdansk, the second major pole of the strike wave. Squadrons of ZOMO riot police surrounded the Lenin Shipyard, which 3,000 workers have occupied since Monday. Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski's decision to use force could foreshadow similar political crises throughout Eastern Europe. In the past few months, rumbles of dissent and debate have rippled through the region. Although they take on different shapes, the dissent and debate all focus on the same issue: political pluralism.
By political pluralism, East Europeans don't mean the end of the one-party communist state. They mean the creation of independent groups which are able to monitor the party.
In Poland, workers want the legalization of their independent trade union Solidarity. In Hungary, intellectuals are battling for legal recognition of an independent ``democratic forum'' to discuss the country's problems.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) are fueling the protests. In 1981, when Solidarity first appeared and demanded pluralism, Leonid Brezhnev sat in the Kremlin, and the union's argument for pluralism could be dismissed as ``anti-socialist.'' In the Gorbachev era, East bloc leaders no longer can argue that they are being held back by Moscow.
Their restive citizens now invoke the Soviet leader in their push for change. One recent example: After police stopped East German youths from gathering near the Berlin Wall to listen to a rock concert, they started shouting ``We want Gorbachev.''
Deterioriating East European economies contribute to a volatile mix of declining incomes and rising discontent. During the 1970s, Communist governments could offer steady, if unimpressive, gains in living standards which helped produce a measure of political passivity. During the 1980s, East bloc regimes find themselves saddled with intractable foreign debts, along with aging, noncompetitive industrial bases.
But perestroika produces pain before noticeable improvement. Inefficient factories must be closed. Prices must be raised.
East Europeans will make sacrifices only if they receive something in return. What they want is the ability to check excesses by their government.
In Poland, workers say they will accept price raises averaging 45 percent, if they can participate in the decisions about how the savings are used. Strikers in Gdansk say the only way they can participate is through the outlawed Solidarity.
In Czechoslovakia, more than a half million people have signed a 31-point petition demanding greater religious freedom.
Often the communist party is swept up into the debate. At recent Bulgarian party conferences, for example, apparatchiks debated the party's ``leading role.'' Hungarian dissidents actually have found support for their demands within the Hungarian Communist Party.
Imre Pozsgay, a Central Committee member and leader of the People's Patriotic Front, argues that the Front no longer should be a pliant party organization. Instead, as he told the Monitor last fall, it should become a forum for a nonparty press and other ``free associations'' of citizens in organizations of their choice.
``The political life in our country must provide for the emergence of interest groups, groups which have autonomy,'' Mr. Pozsgay said. ``The party [must] withdraw itself from its present relationship with the state and society - and establish a new relationship.''
Pozsgay's views are by no means shared by many of his colleagues. They fear that formal recognition of independent movements could mark the beginning of the end of communist rule. The Hungarian party recently expelled four reformers associated with Pozsgay.
In fact, a noticeable crackdown on dissent is visible throughout the region. Earlier this year, East German leader Erich Honecker arrested his country's most vocal dissidents and sent them packing to West Germany, while the new Czechoslovak leader Miklos Jakes warned that ``extending democracy in no way means making room for the legalization of political opposition.'' Activists who didn't listen recently were picked up by police for a nasty interrogations.
Given this restrictive atmosphere, the Polish government's decision to use force against the strikers should not come as such a surprise. Even with Gorbachev in the Kremlin, the moral is clear: East bloc leaders will not negotiate about power-sharing.