The Perils of East Bloc Reform

REFORM is too small a word to capture what we are witnessing in the heart of Central Europe. Poland and Hungary are not engaging in a mere change of government but have embarked on the wholesale replacement of a bankrupt political and economic system. Such an unprecedented experiment is strewn with pitfalls and dangers. Poland has thus far achieved a peaceful transition from a communist monopoly to a Solidarity-led coalition government. Hopefully, this will evolve into a multiparty parliamentary democracy before the next national balloting. If all goes according to plan, communist control over the instruments of coercion will be removed, the president will be freely elected, and the market economy will be firmly in place. But no one can be certain of success, and time may already be running out for the Mazowiecki administration.

In Hungary, the communists are trying to salvage a deciding voice in the next government by changing their name, their program, and their style. Behind the scenes they are maneuvering for a strong Jaruzelski-type presidency just in case things get out of control. But popular pressures for a complete break with special privilege and political manipulation in both countries are likely to escalate and lead to fresh conflicts.

Pressures for reform will also escalate in the more orthodox states. We have seen this most clearly in East Germany, where the refugee exodus acted as a catalyst for large public demonstrations, rapid growth of opposition groups, and resignations from office. The Krenz regime has opted for a controlled relaxation of political restrictions. But a partial loosening of the chains may prove inadequate for an younger generation demanding that the chains be removed altogether.

In Czechoslovakia, public dissent is growing while the government remains intransigent. The East German experience will serve as a powerful reminder that conflicts can rapidly escalate if aspirations are frustrated.

The problem with reform is that it introduces new points of contention between the state and society and between diverse social interests. Pluralism raises expectations even as material deprivations aggravate resentment.

The dangers in systemic transition are legion. Foremost is the likelihood of economic collapse in the midst of restructuring. For long-term economic recovery and fiscal rationality, a prolonged period of austerity is essential. The introduction of capitalism will lower already precarious living standards, increase inequalities, and throw thousands out of work.

EQUALLY dangerous, unrepentant communist forces in the bureaucracy and security service may subvert reforms and manipulate economic privations. Marxists are regrouping in Hungary under the banner of ``protecting the working class.'' In Poland they've called for new roundtable negotiations and pose as defenders of proletarian interests against capitalist restoration.

We may also witness political paralysis between opposition democrats and reform communists. The new administrations may simply drift from one crisis to the next without the means and muscle to transform the command economy.

At present the Warsaw and Budapest governments are steering the changes, but the impact of public opinion and democratic experimentation could soon leave them on the sidelines. At that point the state may need to impose emergency measures or face a backlash.

The danger of mounting anti-Russian feelings can't be discounted either. Demands for neutrality, national sovereignty, and withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact could provoke a Soviet re-intervention under the guise of ``protecting reform'' or ``preserving security.'' The intervention need not be military. It may involve a mix of intensive political pressures, threats, and economic sanctions, or even the use of surrogate forces and hard-line local communists.

The East bloc has entered unexplored and treacherous territory. Thus far, many dreams have turned into reality, but nightmares could materialize also.

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