Can East Germany Reform After Honecker?

AS East Germany celebrated its 40th anniversary last weekend, there was little cheer to be found in the hearts of the country's staunchly orthodox communist regime. At a time when social unrest in the GDR is reaching unprecedented levels, a division within East Germany's Communist Party is becoming increasingly evident, and for the aging politburo's most orthodox members time may be running out. Sedated by decades of relative domestic tranquility, will the GDR's old guard be able to fend off the country's movement for reform once Erich Honecker (who is said to be in ill health) is gone?

The GDR's pro-reform movement has swelled in recent years. The number of independent political groups, which hovered around a dozen just a few years ago, has reached nearly 200. Membership, spanning all ages and professions, continues to grow. Demonstrations in support of ``democratization'' and perestoika are now commonplace, and the thought of the GDR's regime facing its own Tiananmen Square is no longer far fetched.

East Germany's vaunted economic ``success'' story, at one time the regime's strong card, has deteriorated to such an extent that the SED (East Germany's Communist Party) issued secret guidelines this August to local officials and leading journalists instructing party representatives how to report and discuss increasing supply shortages.

Communist authorities thought they could siphon off much of the country's discontent by allowing greater emigration to West Germany. But no one seemed to foresee the extent or impact of the summer's massive exodus to the West via Hungary and Czechoslovakia, which has sent the number of refugees soaring over 100,000. The GDR has become, in the words of one analyst from West Germany's Ministry for Intra-German Relations, a ``pressure-cooker'' ready to explode.

While the Party tries to rein in opposition and dissent (repression is on the rise with over 3,000 political prisoners at present), what East Germany's orthodox communists fear most is a disruptive trend of inner-party dissent. There was a hint of this in a book published this spring in West Germany by GDR Party functionary Rolf Henrich. In ``The Guardian State,'' Henrich argues for Soviet-style reforms in the GDR and boldly attacks East Germany's notorious secret police, ``the state within the state,'' as the central culprit behind the county's stifling political climate.

Many of the GDR's would-be reformers look to Hans Modrow, the SED's chief executive for Dresden, as a potential leader within their ranks. Modrow incurred the wrath of the Party's Central Committee this summer for his passive stance toward ``bourgeoise'' and ``hostile'' anti-communist elements in his district.

Normally, such ideological negligence would be grounds for dismissal, but in the case of Modrow the SED backed off for fear of offending Moscow. It seems two years ago, Valentin Alexyevich, then the Kremlin's number two man at its embassy in East Berlin, circulated word that Modrow would be Mikhail Gorbachev's favorite to eventually succeed Mr. Honecker.

Modrow is not a member of the politburo, which has led many analysts to concentrate on Egon Krenz as Honecker's most likely heir-apparent. Krenz, the 52 year-old politburo member responsible for internal security, is thought to be Honecker's personal favorite and successor-designate. But Krenz has health problems, and he's intensely disliked by the Gorbachev crowd in Moscow.

The possibility of a dark horse ``moderate'' like Modrow quickly ascending to power cannot be ruled out. To be sure, a GDR ``reformer'' would tread carefully at home. No matter the degree of orthodoxy, all East German communists understand that longevity is closely linked to the future of communism in the GDR.

In the world of foreign policy, a more pliant, moderate GDR regime might signal a flexible tool in the service of Mikhail Gorbachev's Europe policy. If the Soviets want to tempt the West Germans away from the Atlantic Alliance with whispers of German unity, East Berlin needs to cooperate. In this regard, Hans Modrow might be the key to a door the Soviets aleady have ajar.

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