Communist Reform - Playing With Fire

COMMUNIST leaderships in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe are beset by uneasiness and uncertainty about the future of reforms. The turmoil in China, the humiliating defeat of Communist Party candidates in Poland's first partially free elections, and ethnic and labor unrest in the Soviet Union seem to be only a foretaste of things to come. As Poland and Hungary move ahead of the Soviet Union in terms of reform, other East European regimes may jump on the reform bandwagon.

As debates in the newly elected Supreme Soviet have demonstrated, there is no consensus within the Soviet ruling class about how to proceed further with Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika. Reformers are impatient to move into the brave new world. In the wake of the political upheaval in China and the miners' strike in the Soviet Union, however, anti-reform conservatives feel vindicated in warning about the dangers to communist rule inherent in change.

For communist hardliners everywhere, the protests in Tiananmen Square were an open rebellion and a challenge to party power and privilege. Hardliners also caution that a shift away from centrally planned management of the economy in favor of market economics will be an indirect admission of the economic strengths of capitalism and its superiority over the Soviet economic model.

The reformers' answer to these warnings is that the communist countries must gamble on reform if they are to stave off further decay and a possible collapse. They are selling reforms as a revolutionary program to modernize communist societies and close the economic and technological gap between the communist world and advanced Western countries.

Reformers in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe further insist that communist societies must adapt to changing international and domestic circumstances. Yet even reformers must admit that their resort to market forces in place of failed traditional methods betrays a loss of self-confidence by communist elites, who no longer see themselves as the ``wave of the future.''

Even more troubling to reformers must be the fact that the process of change forces painful readjustments, like depressed living standards, inflation, nascent unemployment, and increasing social inequality. These negative consequences of reform leave their flanks open to attack from conservative opponents, as well as from allies among the intelligentsia and the workers.

Another danger inherent in reformers' power-sharing experiments is that they are unleashing forces that want to discard rather than reshape communism. This has alarmed an entrenched party bureaucracy fearful of losing its power and privileges. These conservative forces are resisting innovations, frequently with the tacit support of the secret police and the military. The KGB and the Red Army may have growing doubts about the benefits of reform in the Soviet Union. Both institutions have been eclipsed since losing their representation in the Soviet Politburo.

The KGB has faced repeated calls for greater accountability for its activities at home and abroad. The Soviet Army, its budget facing major cuts and a sixth of its officer corps soon to be forced into retirement, is hardly any happier with the prospects of further reductions in manpower and weapons. While even people like Boris Yeltsin discount the possibility of an anti-Gorbachev coup, the risk of a conservative backlash should not be underestimated. Yet any return to the failed policies of the past would doom the chances for reform throughout Eastern Europe.

Unfortunately, the opponents of reformist policies can exploit popular dissatisfaction with some of the unintended consequences of reform. The peoples of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe remain deeply suspicious that the ultimate effect of reforms will be to make them bear the burden of cleaning up the economic mess that their governments have created. Having already seen their living standards decline in the last decade, they fear that the only rewards for working harder will be empty stores, higher prices, unemployment, elimination of vital subsidies for basic necessities, and more official corruption.

By experimenting with free-market methods in an economy that is not free, and by forcing new sacrifices upon reluctant populations, the communist regimes are venturing into a twilight zone fraught with the danger of more labor unrest and social upheavals. Hostile public reaction has already forced Soviet planners to postpone price decontrols and the removal of subsidies.

Communist reformers like Gorbachev may find it easier to overcome conservative opposition to their innovative policies than to coax suspicious populations into accepting the economic and social price of reforms without instituting political freedoms and democratic rights. The Soviet-bloc nations may not support a free-market economy without its political corollary - a pluralistic participatory democracy.

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