EAST BERLIN — AT the marathon Communist Party Congress in East Berlin over the weekend, the periodic breaks were anything but a rest. With no time to lose, the 2,753 delegates would swarm into clusters in the enormous Dynamo Sports Hall to debate the issues. The life of this party-in-crisis was at stake. People spoke their minds and settled their differences with a vote. And during the full assembly sessions, everyone who wanted a turn at the microphone was given one.
It was startling to see democracy at work within one of the most hard-line Communist parties in Eastern Europe. If the party congress and the recent round-table meeting with opposition groups prove anything, it's that East Germany's newest Communist leaders are bending over backward to be fair and democratic.
At the round-table talks last Thursday, in which Mr. Gysi participated, the Communist Party met almost all of the opposition's demands.
In business-like discussions, the party agreed that new laws determining the future of the country should be reviewed by the round table before being considered in the parliament. It agreed that the round table should meet until May 6, the date recommended by the table for free and secret parliamentary elections. It also agreed that the round table should work on a new constitution.
``The round table has extraordinary importance,'' says a Western diplomat here. Although it technically has no lawmaking power, by acting as a check on the old-line parliament, ``it is the real parliament,'' he says.
Nowhere is this ``fairness'' symbolized more strongly than in the party's new chief, Gregor Gysi. Mr. Gysi is a 42-year-old attorney who defended critics of the state and people caught fleeing the country. From a Jewish family, he is committed to the protection of the Jewish culture in East Germany. Gysi represented New Forum, the largest opposition group, when it was still being called ``an enemy of the state.'' He has no villa, no private hunting reserve, and is seen as very bright.
Gysi was the only candidate nominated to replace Egon Krenz, and his integrity is said to be irreproachable. (Other reformers bowed out because they either wanted to stay in their jobs - such as the mayor of Dresden - or felt they were too old.)
The fairness factor is important in this country right now. Although not surprised by the revelations of corruption in the Communist Party, people are enraged over recent findings exposing the extent of it. On Friday, the state prosecutor ordered the arrest of former leader Erich Honecker and his closest Politburo advisers on charges of misuse of office and corruption. Mr. Honecker, however, was deemed too ill to arrest.
But the East Germans won't be satisfied with arrests; they want the guilty punished. Even a traditional-sounding Communist voiced this opinion.
``There should be full punishment - Honecker included,'' said Doris Grimm, a congress delegate who is also first secretary of a small district near the Polish border. ``I'm personally deeply disappointed. I respected Honecker.''
In several cities last week, citizens occupied their local offices of the Department of National Security to prevent the destruction of files. In Dresden, windows were smashed and government personnel received minor injuries, according to Wolfgang Schwanitz, head of the department that includes the hated secret police. He warned of ``unforeseeable consequences'' if the confrontations continue.
East Germans are also showing their disgust by simply withdrawing from the party. Brigitte Zimmermann, spokeswoman for the party, told reporters at the all-night congress early Saturday morning that membership has dropped to 1.78 million people. This is a loss of at least 500,000, most in the last three months.
Against this backdrop, the party tried desperately to break with its Stalinist past last weekend. In a position paper, it apologized for leading the German Democratic Republic (East Germany or the GDR) into an ``existence-endangering crisis'' and said the party is willing to ``pay its debt'' for this. Gysi also tackled this theme in a major speech at the beginning of the congress.
The goal of the party is to develop ``democratic socialism,'' according to the paper, which also described it as an ``equal party'' among others in the GDR. The Communists' right to a monopoly on power was recently struck from the Constitution.
Delegates also voted to change the party name from the Socialist Unity Party (its formal designation), but will not pick a new name until the congress reconvenes next weekend. At that time, they will also decide on a new program and party rules. They did, however, scrap the ruling Politburo, and instead of the party Central Committee they will have a 100-member ``board of directors.'' In Brussels at the European Community summit last weekend, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said that profound changes is taking place in the GDR. In an address at the congress, East German Prime Minister Hans Modrow supported the idea of a confederation between the two Germanys but flatly rejected reunification.
Despite the Communists' move to pluralism and fairness, it almost goes without saying here that its days at the top are over. With the party's new direction, ``maybe it could get 15 percent'' if elections were held tomorrow, says the diplomat. ``I highly doubt it could get that 31 percent.'' Last Thursday, the party newspaper Neues Deutschland published a poll giving the Communist Party 31 percent of the vote.
As a fatigued woman in the Berlin delegation at the party congress admitted: ``You can't change in one night what we've done over 40 years.''