Power and Politics in the Soviet Bloc

IT is an unwritten communist principle not to surrender political territory to other political parties or regimes. Yet, in the early postwar period the communists were obliged to share power, if perfunctorily, with other groups in so-called ``ruling coalitions'' in the ``People's Democracies.'' Today, Poland and Hungary appear to be reverting to the situation of 1945-46. As events proceed in Poland, where a coalition will surely become a reality, three questions readily come to mind: How likely is it that Poland and Hungary might one day become completely sovereign and independent as multi-party democracies? If this did happen, what brought about this precipitous devolution of communist hegemony? Who or what gets credit for de-Sovietization?

First, consider Lenin's principle of the ``commanding heights.'' This was the leader's safety-net formula by which the communists would surrender a degree of power while holding onto the main levers of authority. The commanding heights under the 1921-28 New Economic Policy (NEP) were the police, the army, and the state bank, plus major industries and what we would call utilities. Lenin insisted that as long as the party ran these institutions, ``retreats'' toward capitalism would remain ``tactical,'' temporary, amounting to little more than ``caviar to the general.''

He was right, of course. Stalin and his associates easily snuffed out NEP precisely because the party held these commanding heights. By exploiting their power to the fullest beginning in 1928, Stalin was able to decree the five-year plans, collectivization, and regimentation of Soviet arts and letters. In the Soviet bloc, to one degree or another, the communist rulers still hold these commanding heights - and they give no sign of being willing to surrender them.

A similar commanding-heights principle works between socialist states. Looking at the situation today, Lenin might agree that if you held the commanding heights within the northern tier of East European nations, meaning, East Germany and Czechoslovakia - the bloc's arms and precision machine-tool makers and exporters - any neighboring satellites presumably could be controlled and hemmed in so that the empire would not become disaffected and unglued.

Poland is squeezed geographically by powerful police-state regimes on both sides: the Soviet Union to the east while loyal Czechoslovakia and goose-stepping East Germany hold the fort to the west.

As long as these three guardians of the region's most geostrategic East European communist zone hold firm - and Moscow is making sure that they do - whatever Poland does internally would seem almost irrelevant in terms of Moscow's ultimately maintaining imperial sway over the region. Accordingly, the Polish Worker's Party, in its latest bow to Moscow, has indicated in no uncertain terms that it will not give up control over the police, army, foreign affairs, the media, and the country's central financial institutions. The commanding heights will be held.

Hungary, on the other hand, is not part of the northern tier. Agrarian Hungary's maverick politics and economic reform do not seriously interfere with Soviet military planning and, in fact, are rather good publicity for ``experimental'' communism. These days, communism-with-a-human-face fetches capital and technology from the West and far from being feared, is blessed by the Kremlin.

As to the whys of de-Sovietization, it is not enough to reply simply:``Mikhail Gorbachev.'' The Soviet leader may be the spiritual force behind the current dismantling of Stalinist-style rule at home and abroad, but does he deserve most of the credit for the new policies?

In his book ``Perestroika,'' Mr. Gorbachev states openly that after private discussion in the late Brezhnev era, the leaders inaugurated reform collectively. That is, the change of generations plus objective factors (the obvious problems accruing to communism as a flawed system) literally drove present-day rulers to make changes.

The reformists' solution is plainly apparent today. It is an admixture of flexibility, experimentation, a degree of wile in throwing crumbs to the people (glasnost, playing at democracy), coupled, above all, with an occasional teaching of a hard lesson in the application of police-state force and violence. Such occasional dramatic assertions of power reminds everyone of the ultimate invincibility of the communist order.

In terms of foreign policy, publicized admission of error and the cleansing and strengthening that come from confession and redemption builds strength by raising Soviet prestige. As long as symbolic strength does not give way to concrete weakness, the end-result is a plus for Moscow. Meanwhile, to guard against resulting weakness, Soviet military expenditures remain high and weapons modernization goes on apace.

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