UNDOING the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe will be essential for developing more normal East-West relations. Yet that may prove even harder and slower than achieving other changes such as arms control, regional restraint, and human rights. The long-term Western interest is to see Eastern Europe evolve steadily and peacefully toward autonomy, pluralism, and political and economic systems of their choice. That will be a long process.
While he favors reform, Mikhail Gorbachev's objectives in Eastern Europe are less congruent with Western aims than on some other issues. The Soviet Union has firmly maintained subservient communist regimes, conformity, and the Warsaw Pact, and asserted the right to do so by force in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968).
Mr. Gorbachev has modified this policy, in keeping with glasnost and perestroika, but how far is still unclear. These regimes now have much more latitude in running their domestic affairs and in reforming their system. He has proclaimed the ``independence'' of every nation and acquiesced in plans for some sharing of power by the communist regimes in Hungary and Poland. Thus far, however, his aim appears to be to enhance the viability of these regimes and not to dismantle the Soviet empire.
Conditions in Eastern Europe will make that goal elusive. The reasons differ widely among the regimes. In Hungary, the economic reforms (especially for freer markets and private firms) have produced more goods, but also tensions due to inflation, income disparity, and unemployment; and there are moves toward political pluralism. In Poland, too, the regime has agreed to share power with Solidarity in a desperate effort to enlist worker cooperation so as to revive the stagnant, debt-burdened economy. But in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania, the regimes are resisting reform in varying degree.
Yet pressures for more goods, pluralism, and freedom are at work in all these states and are stimulated by the ferment and change in the USSR, rising nationalism, and the potential impact of cutting conventional forces. At some point popular uprisings could erupt.
The consequences would almost surely disrupt the process of positive change. If the Soviets intervened, that would undermine improving East-West relations; and even if not, the spread of turmoil and disorder in Eastern Europe could become explosive and the impact within the USSR incalculable.
It is not within the West's power to ensure orderly evolution. The impetus for change will have to come primarily from within the bloc and will be bumpy as the regimes adapt to pressure and necessity. But the influence of the United States and its allies can still contribute significantly to the chances for a constructive outcome over time.
First, regarding the Soviets: Its leaders have certainly not accepted the concept that these states will ultimately become a stable, neutral belt of free-market democracies. A more realistic medium-term goal may be to help to transform the Soviet bloc into a more consensual alliance of autonomous, pluralist, more-open states, respecting human rights. Even that will require Soviet thinking about security to change radically.
To expand Soviet tolerance for such change in Eastern Europe, the West properly can and should make clear to Soviet leaders that it hopes for peaceful evolution without violent uprisings and will not capitalize on greater independence of these states in ways that damage Soviet security. Stabilizing arms control and confidence-building measures will also serve this purpose.
Second, as to the Eastern European states: The West should actively encourage positive change through economic links, educational, cultural, and information exchanges, and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. In providing economic assistance, it should continue to distinguish between those states that do adopt and carry out economic and political reforms and those that resist such change.
President Bush has recently reaffirmed that policy with his package of assistance for Poland, after the regime agreed to legalize Solidarity and schedule elections to share some power. By such assistance the US, Europe, and Japan can help these countries cope with the disruption inevitable in shifting to more open economies and societies.
If the allies are to pursue such a course effectively, they will have to clarify and coordinate objectives and guidelines. At present there are divergences. Identity of approach is neither feasible nor essential. But reasonable harmonization is. Achieving that should be one of the aims of the NATO summit at the end of May and at the next meeting of the Group of Seven industrial nations.