`WHERE are the Russians?'' This, surprisingly, is the question on some East European minds now. Who would have predicted that while reformist Moscow widely advertises its new policy of supposed noninterference in internal affairs of other communist countries, growing numbers of political forces in the region desire exactly such intervention? Some leading ``Prague spring'' reformers who lost their jobs after the Soviet-led military invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 wrote to Mikhail Gorbachev offering him their services. Some Romanian citizens reportedly tell Western journalists that they expect the Russians to liberate them one day. When Czechoslovakia's prime minister, the reborn reformer Lubomir Strougal, found himself entangled in a big power struggle with antireformers in Prague, he traveled to Moscow late last year to seek Mr. Gorbachev's support.
While would-be reformers are still refusing to take Soviet nonintervention rhetoric for real, conservatives in some East European countries skillfully turn the tables on Gorbachev and defy him openly. As late as last August, the wife of Jan Fojtik, a hard-line Czechoslovak Communist Party Politburo member and ideologue, published an article critical of Soviet glasnost. She warned that ideological ``confusion'' in the Soviet Union was in some respects analogous to what happened in Czechoslovakia in 1968, and concluded that because the USSR has not gone through a variety of Hungarian, Czechoslovak, and Polish counterrevolutions, many illusions survived there and the danger was great.
After the sudden demotion of Yegor Ligachev in the Kremlin, reformers naturally expected that the second shoe would drop on his conservative fellow travelers in Eastern Europe. To their astonishment, however, it was Czechoslovak reformer Strougal who was forced out of his job shortly thereafter. Mr. Strougal's resignation from his posts of prime minister and ruling Politburo member was announced at exactly the same plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia where the defiant Mr. Fojtik delivered the Politburo's hard-line report. Meanwhile, self-confident conservatives in Prague cynically ask visiting foreign officials why they do not like Czechoslovakia's distancing itself from Moscow, since the West always wanted it to do so.
These unexpected results of Gorbachev's supposedly noninterventionist policy dishearten potential reformers in such tightly controlled countries as Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Bulgaria, and Romania. Some even claim that the Soviet leader is probably not interested in meaningful reforms in Eastern Europe after all.
This is a shortsighted interpretation of events, however. What is needed is not more intervention but no intervention at all. In fact, reformers and pro-democratic forces in such countries as Hungary and Poland, including Solidarity, have a rare opportunity to turn Gorbachev's relative leniency in Eastern Europe to their decisive advantage, provided they display needed courage and imagination. The reasoning is clear: The less willing is Gorbachev to strike against dogmatists now, the less will be his ability to curb democratic developments later without disqualifying himself as a ``new thinker'' in the East and in the West.
Meanwhile, recent changes in Czechoslovak leadership should not be regarded as a slap to Gorbachev or reforms, either. True, Czechoslovak conservatives made their point at home and in Moscow by defiantly ousting reformer Strougal, who was singled out for a special welcome by Gorbachev late last year in a hope that it would convey a proper message to Prague. Also, sheer abruptness of the changes at the top and their scope will likely caution reformers in the country.
All this is just half of the story, however. To make it complete, one has to mention that Ladislav Adamec, who replaced Strougal, wants to be a reformer himself. Prague conservatives might have turned out to be more defiant than initially expected, but they are certainly not the kind to test the limits of Gorbachev's patience.
At the plenary meeting of the party Central Committee in Prague last December, Mr. Adamec delivered a speech fully comparable to Strougal's most daring pronouncements. He called for radical reforms and explained that planning, as practiced in Czechoslovakia, ``greatly harmed the psychological and mental health of both executives and rank-and-file staff.'' He also complained that the country had such a complicated state administration that it ``cannot be sensibly explained.''
Neither would it be warranted to talk about new Czechoslovak defiance of Moscow in foreign policy. The new foreign minister is probably the only person in the entire Czechoslovak foreign service I personally know of who has never uttered any thought at variance with Soviet positions prevailing at any given moment. He is, however, less corrupt and might be able to bring more substance to Czechoslovak foreign policy than his predecessor, who couldn't care less about concrete results from his endless foreign travels.
In any case, Eastern Europe is definitely gaining new room to maneuver. The United States and the West should renew implementing a policy of differentiation toward the region. Positive developments can be constructively used by the reformers only if they find new economic - and to a certain extent political - opportunities outside their narrow East European surroundings.