The conference seemed harmless. A dozen youngsters, most in their early 20s, sat around a table in the seventh-floor meeting room of the Hotel Szamlik. They debated all afternoon. Then they drafted a petition calling ``on the Hungarian authorities to recognize conscientious objection as a human right.''
The action offers a concrete example of ``Civil Society,'' a concept that is challenging communist power in Eastern Europe. Civil Society means community activism, forming independent groups to push for change from below.
The ultimate goal of most activists is to establish Western-style democracy. But since that is impossible in the foreseeable future, these activists aim to create a free middle ground, a space where individuals can express themselves outside of state control.
They are succeeding. Instead of letting the authorities set the political agenda, pressure groups are creating public debates over such long-neglected social issues as the environment, nuclear power, feminism, gay rights, and of course, conscientious objection.
These issues cannot be classified by the traditional right-left divide. Unlike Poland's independent trade union Solidarity, these grass-roots movements cannot be dismissed as ``counterrevolutionary'' or ``antisocialist.''
``It's not abstract like freedom of speech,'' explains Miklos Haraszti, the noted Hungarian dissident who authored an appeal this year for conscientious objection which was signed by 429 East European and Soviet dissidents. ``Every 18-year-old has to go into the Army,'' he says.
Throughout Eastern Europe, military service is compulsory, lasting from 16 months to three years, with few or no concessions for objectors. Penalties for burning the draft card range from one to five years in prison.
Until recently, few questioned these rules. The few objectors were motivated by religious reasons. For most older East Europeans, the Army was a sacred symbol of the nation.
Jacek Czaputowicz, founder of a Polish antidraft group called ``Freedom and Peace,'' remembers trying to enlist Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. The idea of alternative military service didn't appeal to the legendary union leader, and he criticized Freedom and Peace's demand for changes in the military oath, under which recruits must pledge ``to safeguard peace relentlessly in the fraternal alliance with the Soviet Army.''
``I was in the Army,'' Mr. Czaputowicz recalls Mr. Walesa, a former corporal, telling him. ``Why don't you also serve?''
But before long, Walesa relented and signed a Freedom and Peace petition. He saw that conscientious objection was recruiting a new generation to the opposition cause.
``We saw that Freedom and Peace tapped a cause that we had neglected,'' says Solidarity spokesman Janusz Onyszkiewicz. ``It had something real and important to offer young people.''
Only in Bulgaria and Romania, countries with no tradition of civic activism, has the crusade failed to mobilize youth to fight for conscientious objection.
In Czechoslovakia, a new pacifist movement has taken up the issue. In East Germany, the Evangelical Church is active. And in the Yugoslav republic of Slovenia, the Socialist Youth Alliance's agitation over conscientious objection is at the center of the simmering war of wills between the republic and the central Belgrade authorities.
``The Army says that we are influenced by foreign agents, by the CIA,'' says Robert Botterri, editor of the Alliance's magazine Mladina. ``It doesn't want the public discussing civil service or anything else to do with its privileges.
East European antidraft activists are inspired by the Western peace movements. The Hotel Szamlak meeting was sponsored by the Hungarian and Dutch sections of the East-West Dialogue Group; it brought together Dutch, English, and Yugoslav as well as Hungarian activists.
What the peaceniks want is an end to all types of militarization. They complain about marching drills now required in East bloc secondary school. These drills include shooting lessons and marches.
``They start you off in kindergarten singing patriotic military songs,'' complains Ingrid Bakse of the Slovenian Socialist Youth Alliance. ``We want them to teach peaceful subjects.''
East European governments are making concessions to these arguments. In June, the Polish government announced plans for a civil alternative to military service, and the Polish parliament decreed an end to the use of the controversial military oath. Hungary announced its own civil service plan last month.
``This is a positive initiative from young people,'' says Imre Pozsgay, a reform-minded member of the Hungarian Politburo, ``and we must respond positively.''
Peace activists don't think the communists are doing them favors. They see their victories as the result of public pressure.
``We embarrassed our government,'' says Czaputowicz, the leader of Poland's Peace and Freedom. ``It preaches peace and at the same time it was jailing peace activists.''
The concessions please the activists assembled at the Hotel Szalmlak. But they are not satisfied. They make plans for a new peace campaign. Their first demand: a withdrawal of Soviet troops from Eastern Europe.
``We have many other battles to fight,'' says Tibor Holczer, the meeting organizer. ``We want a nuclear-free, chemical-free country, a reduced military budget, general disarmament.''
Last of three articles on grass-roots activism in East Europe. Previous articles ran Sept. 12 and 13.