EAST GERMANY'S dramatic political liberalization has presented Moscow with the toughest test yet of its so-called Sinatra Doctrine - letting East-bloc allies ``do it their way.'' When noncommunists took power in Poland and Hungary's ruling Communists transformed themselves into social democrats, Kremlin officials pledged not to interfere.
But East Germany - where the government's sudden resignation, the opening of the borders, and a promise of free elections caught the world by surprise - plays a special role in the Warsaw Pact. It is the Soviets' westernmost ally in Europe, with the largest Red Army contingent based abroad - 380,000 troops.
The Soviets have officially reacted to East German developments with praise. On Friday, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev sent a cable to President Bush expressing support for East Germany's open-border policy. He also conveyed the hope that the situation would remain ``calm and peaceful,'' the White House said. Both superpowers have heightened the importance of next month's Mediterranean summit in light of last week's events.
Inside the Soviet Union, the news media hesitated to cover Germany at first, but have since come out with low-key factual stories.
In its one commentary so far, published Saturday on Page 6, the Communist Party daily Pravda called East Germany's decision to open its borders the ``untying of the Gordian knot.'' East Berlin, the correspondent continued, is ``paving the way for new political thinking, characterized by creative approaches to complex issues that have long complicated relations between both German governments.'' East Berlin has taken an important step on the road to creation of a ``common European home,'' the paper said, referring to one of Mr. Gorbachev's long-standing slogans.
Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, speaking to Scandinavian journalists Friday, called the East German border opening ``wise and sensible.'' Moves toward democratization, he reportedly said, coincided with the desires of the East German people and with the interests of the Soviet Union.
In remarks to Western reporters last week, Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Gerasimov also praised the political changes. And when asked how Moscow would respond if noncommunist rule came to East Germany, he hinted it would be acceptable as long as East Germany remained a member of the Warsaw Pact.
``Poland is a good member of the Warsaw Pact, and in Poland you have a coalition, you don't have a Communist government in Poland,'' Mr. Gerasimov said.
At the same time, Gerasimov threw cold water on speculation about eventual German reunification. Only after NATO and the Warsaw Pact have been dissolved - something the Warsaw Pact has suggested before - would it be appropriate to discuss German reunification, Gerasimov said.
There are several reasons why Moscow can react positively to events in East Germany. Open travel between East and West Germany will make it easier for the East bloc to acquire Western technology. Also, any boost in West German economic aid to East Germany as a response to democratic reforms would help the eastern trading bloc as a whole and ease Moscow's financial burden. On the question of German reunification, the Soviets know that some Western nations share their objections and would weigh in against a reunion.
Soviet analysts reject the notion that Moscow's laissez-faire attitude toward its allies' political liberalization could embolden some nationalist movements inside the Soviet Union.
Valentin Sharov, deputy editor of Pravda's department on socialist countries, said in an interview that he saw no cause for concern over the future of socialism in the East bloc.
``What's happening in the German Democratic Republic [East Germany] is, in my view, a normal process,'' said Mr. Sharov. ``The GDR is parting with the model of socialism that was built with administrative methods of ruling society. That system is in crisis in our country, in Poland, in Hungary, etc., etc. So what's happening in [the] GDR is in no way an exception. I don't see any basis for alarm.''
Still, Pravda's reports from East Berlin have more than once led off with descriptions of crowds of communists, gathered in support of the East German Communist Party.