Computers Are Freedom's Network

AMONG the enemies of socialism, computing once ranked high. In 1953, a philosophical journal in Stalinist Russia described cybernetics, the mathematical analysis on which much of computer-science theory is based, as ``one of those pseudosciences which are generated by contemporary imperialism and are doomed to failure even before the downfall of imperialism.'' The power of computers to influence decisionmaking was seen as a threat to Marxism-Leninism. Even when fears subsided, poor management and barriers to innovation left the USSR and its East European allies lagging behind the West in the development of advanced electronics. While the US boasts more than 150 personal computers per thousand citizens, the USSR has yet to deploy one PC per thousand.

The realization among socialist leaders that their policies failed to create dynamic, high-tech-driven economies explains the wave of reform and free-market experimentation throughout the Soviet bloc. Information technology is now seen as socialism's savior rather than its adversary. Several factors may allow Western business to encourage and benefit from this sentiment.

First, socialists are disenchanted with the joint R&D and computer trade that exist in their own Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. CMEA still Lacks good scientific communication, currency convertibility, and effective supply contracts. Soviet-bloc computer shortages will not ease in the foreseeable future, and Eastern Europe looks westward.

Most socialist countries have amended their laws to ease Western participation in joint ventures. Although the socialist countries have managed to train computer scientists and programmers, these people flock to lucrative jobs in Austria or West Germany. East European authorities hope that joint ventures on their soil will help stem this tide. It is now possible for foreign firms to own 100 percent of a subsidiary operating in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, or Poland.

Tax laws have been changed to allow greater repatriation of profits to the West. In Hungary these laws are particularly generous to computer firms. Hungary also promises to enforce copyright laws, the flouting of which has deterred Western software vendors.

Western restrictions on the export of sensitive technology are becoming less severe - the result of reduced US-Soviet tensions and pressure from business and academia. This year, the US government has approved the sale to the Soviet bloc of IBM PC/AT-type computers, and lower-level versions of the IBM PS/2 and the Apple Macintosh.

An enthusiastic computer culture exists in Eastern Europe. At last spring's Leipzig trade fair, the crush of young East German programmers at the booths of US computer firms led one exhibitor to sigh, ``You'd think we were giving out bread for the world here.''

Middlemen in Poland, Hungary, and the Soviet Union earn large profits brokering Western microcomputers for their state-enterprise clients. And Czechoslovakian, Hungarian, Polish, and Soviet authorities are eager to bring computer education into their schools. Data services are also in demand as a means of plugging into global economic and scientific developments. Last month in Moscow several hundred Western database vendors and potential Soviet and East European clients gathered for the first time in what organizers called a ``deal-making session.''

Soviet-bloc use of data services will remain limited for some time by three factors: Their cost is high, the bloc has a poor infrastructure for data communications, and Western strategic concerns regarding East-bloc access to sensitive information are far from resolved.

Similar issues dampen the enthusiasm of Western manufacturers. Socialist enterprises do not have access to the Western hard currency required for large-scale computer buying, and governments facing shortages on every front find that they have insufficient resources to close the computer gap. While joint ventures remain an alternative, Western firms question the permanence of reforms and the financial viability of operating in countries where it is difficult to take profits in hard currency.

Those are short-term concerns. If anything guarantees Eastern Europe's economic reforms, it is the perception that those trends are essential to socialism's technological development. By exploring the Soviet bloc's untapped market for information technology, Western manufacturers can get in on the ground floor of that market and help seed the future spread of free enterprise and democracy. It is no coincidence that the most dynamic, market-oriented firms in Eastern Europe are also the most computerized. PCs once assisted Poland's Solidarity trade union to publish underground newspapers. Now Solidarity - and the PC - are above ground. The computer is both a beneficiary and a driving force behind perestroika and glasnost throughout Eastern Europe.

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