TWENTY years ago this week, Soviet tanks rolled into Prague to crush the reformist Dubcek regime, which sought to create communism ``with a human face.'' Would another Alexander Dubcek fare the same today? If the reforms of the ``Prague spring'' are compared with those pressed by Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, there are striking parallels. When Gennady Gerasimov, the Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman, was asked what the differences were, he replied ``20 years.''
Many of the substantive reforms are very similar: the economic changes; reducing the party's role in day-to-day management; a more significant legislature; freer public debate; a more independent legal system, with greater individual protection. Mr. Dubcek went further, however. He abolished censorship, safeguarded individual rights, and cut back on the security apparatus.
But other differences are much more significant. Dubcek proposed to radically change the status of the Communist Party. It would no longer have a monopoly on political power, but would have to compete with other political organizations for voluntary support of citizens.
This is completely at odds with Mr. Gorbachev's intentions for the USSR. He wishes to return the Communist Party to ``Leninist norms,'' retaining a monopoly on political power. There will be no multiparty system, though there could be room for movements not ``at variance'' with socialism.
But would Gorbachev and the Politburo demand that the East European regimes continue to conform to that pattern?
The 1968 Czech invasion was publicly justified by the ``Brezhnev doctrine,'' which held that other socialist states had the right to intervene to protect the socialist system. But privately, he told the Czech leaders that the USSR was determined to preserve the Western borders of the Soviet empire won in World War II.
Gorbachev has insisted that the Soviet Union recognizes different roads to socialism and does not wish to dictate to East Europeans. On his visit to Yugoslavia, Gorbachev joined in a statement ruling out intervention ``under any pretext whatsoever.'' Karoly Grosz, the new leader in Hungary, has said that ``intervention is no longer possible.'' But when asked in Poland and Czechoslovakia about ``Prague spring'' and the Soviet invasion, Gorbachev didn't answer.
While response to reform has varied from resistance in East Germany and Romania to extensive reforms in Poland and Hungary, no leader has sought to dilute the Communist Party's monopoly. In Poland, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski flatly rejects the Solidarity trade union's central demand to participate in managing the economy. Yet the active cooperation of the workers is essential to overcome economic stagnation.
Moreover, history has shown that upheavals happen unexpectedly in Eastern Europe: in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Today much of Eastern Europe is undergoing severe stresses. Economies are stagnating; heavy foreign debts are forcing austerity programs; new leaders are, or soon will be, replacing an old generation; nationalism is more vigorous; and the spillover from Soviet reforms is bound to generate popular ferment. Inaction will mean further decline and discontent, but inadequate reforms will be unsettling, entailing sacrifices without payoffs.
The brutal intervention in Hungary and Czechoslovakia instilled a caution and resignation in East Europeans which has maintained relative stability for 20 years. Changing circumstances could conceivably overcome these restraints.
If so, any move toward pluralism would create a traumatic dilemma for Gorbachev and the Politburo. It would foreshadow the eventual erosion of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe and could ultimately influence evolution within the USSR. Yet if forcibly resisted, that action would disrupt or derail the d'etente with the West that the Soviets need for their own reforms. The struggle within the Soviet leadership as to how to handle the issue might undermine Gorbachev's position, with unpredictable consequences for future leadership and internal policy and for Eastern Europe as well.
Any East European leader desiring to move toward greater pluralism may well seek to avoid posing the issue as sharply as Dubcek did. As a start, he might democratize within the party, not in Gorbachev's sense, but treating the party as a tent within which different factions or groups would compete for power by democratic means. But an uprising might not be so circumspect.
Robert R. Bowie has been concerned with foreign affairs for nearly 40 years on the Harvard faculty, in government posts, and as a consultant.