East Europeans break political taboos. Throughout East Europe, grass-roots movements are chiseling away at the power structure. Activists, inspired by new thinking in Moscow and disillusioned by old ways at home, are taking up causes - from the environment to conscientious objection. A three-part series looks at this trend.

Not long ago, a few dozen journalists gathered in one of the nameless housing blocks that make up the Polish capital. They all either had resigned or been fired from official communist newspapers after the declaration of martial law in 1981 and banning of the independent trade union Solidarity. Now, they write for the underground samizdat press. After a short discussion, a declaration was drafted, establishing an independent union of Polish journalists. The new union already numbers 8,000 members.

``We declared, `We were, we are, and we will be,''' says Stefan Bratkowski, union leader and a prominent underground journalist. ``The government can do whatever it wants.''

In the era of Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev, new grass-roots movements are sprouting up in Eastern Europe. Poland's recent wave of strikes is only the latest example. (Outlawed union met over weekend, Page 7.) Hundreds of independent organizations have emerged in recent months like the self-proclaimed journalists' union, everything from the communist world's first private boy scout group to a gay-rights movement.

Veteran dissidents are buoyed by their swelling numbers. Some 10,000 Hungarian students joined an independent youth association this year; in June, tens of thousands of demonstrators protested treatment of the Hungarian minority in Romania; and thousands more are planning today to protest government plans for a controversial dam on the Danube. More than 500,000 Czechs signed a recent petition for religious freedom. And in Poland, millions participate in the parallel society built by the Roman Catholic Church and Solidarity opposition, reading church and union publications, attending religious schools, watching underground theater and video.

East Europeans label this space free of government control ``Civil Society.'' In communist theory, the state aims to control all social activities, guiding an individual's life from birth to death. Independent action is scorned, considered unnecessary, and dangerous.

``Civil Society'' chisels away at this totalitarian domination by feeding on communism's glaring failures. Problems, from pollution to prostitution, which communists claimed only existed under ``capitalism'' turned out to be just as bad, or worse, under communism. Perhaps worst of all, promises of prosperity have faded before growing penury.

Human rights activist Jiri Muller compares the growing recognition of communism's bankruptcy to what happens when a fire ignites: At first, people wait for a government fire truck. It doesn't arrive. One man begins taking buckets of water to try and extinguish the fire, Mr. Muller says. ``The authorities later jail him, saying he should have waited for orders. Today, the fire was extinguished outside of official control. Tomorrow, people ask, what else must be done by themselves outside of the official power?''

Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) are appreciated by East Europeans as an attempt to correct communism's broken promises. A pro-Soviet fad is sweeping the region. Pravda sells out at newsstands. Jaroslav Jiru, a former Radio Prague correspondent sacked after the 1968 Soviet invasion, tells how the Czech censor recently attempted to ban a Prague newspaper from printing an article from the Soviet Novosti press.

``The editor complained,'' Mr. Jiru recalls. ``He said, `This is from our Big Brother,' and the article was printed.''

While welcoming the Soviet leader's initiatives, East European activists believe real change can only come from below, through independent groups compelling their governments to change. Hungarian author Gyorgy Konrad says this pressure takes surprising forms.

``When I look around, I see that everyone is starting something, planning, trying his skills, telling of some small success,'' Mr. Konrad writes in his essay ``Antipolitics.''

``It may be an experimental school, an interesting research project, a new orchestra, a publishing opportunity, a screenplay accepted, a little restaurant about to open, an association of mathematicians, an attractive private shop, a private gallery, a trip to the West ...,'' he says.

Activists are succeeding by focusing their theoretical principles on concrete preoccupations such as the environment, feminism, and conscientious objection to military service. These issues directly affect people, making it possible to motivate the masses who have proved skeptical to nice-sounding appeals about democracy.

``Human rights are an ideal,'' explains Vaclav Maly, a dissident Czech priest. ``Everybody breathes the polluted air.''

Another popular preoccupation is with national traditions. In Hungary, the independent Democratic Forum focuses on the persecution of the 2 million plus Hungarians living in Romania. At its call, tens of thousands recently marched through Budapest, leading to a near rupture in relations between the two countries.

In Czechoslovakia, the new Democratic Initiative has resurrected the memory of Tomas Masaryk, the country's founder and first democratic president, and in Poland, strongman Josef Pilsudski, who ruled between the two wars, has become a cult figure for his strong defense of Polish independence.

``By reviving Masaryk,'' notes Czech journalist Jiru, ``we are reviving national consciousness and historical memories that were buried by the communists.''

Surprisingly, such initiatives have found support in the reform wings of ruling Communist Parties, which want to restore public confidence in their leadership. The official Prague party paper, Rude Pravo, last year published its first article in 20 years on Masaryk. And Poland's ambassador in Switzerland was ordered last year to lay a wreath on Pilsudski's grave on his death anniversary.

The most dramatic reformers are found in Hungary. Imre Pozsgay, elected to the ruling Politburo in May, supports a free non-Communist Party press, the right of ``free association'' of citizens in organizations, even independent trade unions such as Solidarity. In Mr. Pozsgay's view, government must stop stifling individual initiative.

``The goal of the changes is to get the citizens more involved,'' Pozsgay told the Monitor in an interview. ``Our present day economic stagnation is not economic in nature as much as social and political.''

In both Hungary and Poland, the communist authorities are proposing new laws on the right of association and assembly. But activists have their doubts. In Hungary, police beat demonstrators in June demanding the rehabilitation of former leader Imre Nagy, who tried to pull Hungary out of the Warsaw Pact in 1956. The Polish government has rejected registration appeals of independent student groups, and even such innocuous sounding organizations as a society for private entrepreneurs and a Polish-American friendship society.

``The authorities say `yes' to independent associations, but they say `no' to every specific proposal,'' complains Bronislaw Geremek, a leading Solidarity adviser. ``They only want `independent' associations they can control.''

This strategy is bound to fail. Back in 1981, Poland's communists banned Solidarity by declaring martial law, but as recent strikes showed, the union refuses to fade away. According to essayist Adam Michnik, the point is that while police with guns can drive members of an independent organization without guns off the streets, they cannot win the public support necessary to govern effectively.

``If martial law was a setback for the independent society,'' he argues, ``it was a disaster for the totalitarian state.''

Activists are now just ignoring the authorities. Mr. Bratkowksi's journalists union has not even bothered to ask for official approval. It is just operating, publishing a newsletter, paying benefits to banned writers, daring the police to crack down. So far, nothing has happened.

``Even if they put us all in jail,'' warns Bratkowski, ``there soon would be replacements and we'd start again as soon as we are freed.''

First in a three-part series. Next: A corner of Czechoslovakia - Slovenia - is a model of Civil Society in action.

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