Ethnic Troubles Top Agenda for New E. European Regimes


THE revolutions of 1848, Karl Marx optimistically opined, would remove Europe's nationalist antagonisms. After Russia's 1917 revolution, Vladimir Lenin developed the theory. He believed capitalism's collapse to be imminent. It must inexorably hasten the end of nationalism, he said.

The years between then and World War II proved Lenin as wrong as Marx before him. Central Europe and its perennial Balkan powder keg still loaded with ancient ethnic quarrels and conflicts over redrawn frontiers dating from the last century.

Today, with the demise not of capitalism but of the system Russia imposed on Eastern Europe 45 years ago, the ``ghosts'' of those old nationalisms are reminding communism's successors of one of their hardest tasks ahead.

The renewed tensions between Hungary and Romania over the position of 1.5 million Hungarians in Romania's Transylvanian region show just how hard. The region was Hungarian until 1918. Both countries retain historic claims to it. But today's issue is not territory - the 1975 Helsinki Accords froze Europe's existing borders - but the rights of that large Hungarian minority.

Nicolae Ceausescu's ruthless assimilation policies against it brought open conflict between Budapest and Bucharest even before both communist regimes fell, in Hungary by reform and in Romania by the December revolution.

Immediately, Romania's ruling National Salvation Front promised speedy restoration of the Hungarian rights. But four months later, in the face of rightist pressures and opposition to the loss of Romania's dominant position, it still had done nothing.

The result was violent rioting in Tirgu Mures last month, capital of a formerly Hungarian autonomous region.

Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Poland has problems with postwar German expellees. Czechs have not forgotten that Poland grabbed a bit of their country when the Munich agreement left it at Adolf Hitler's mercy prior to World War II.

Discord between Czechs and Slovaks runs deeper than the recent furor over whether to put a hyphen in the country's name.

In the Balkans, the ``Macedonian question'' is again setting Serbs and Bulgarians and Serbs and Greeks at odds. This dispute is rancorous enough, but mild beside the escalating confrontation between Serbs and Albanians in Yugoslavia's Kosovo province.

The Yugoslav party was not directly involved in the general Communist collapse, but it has felt a strong backlash from the return to democracy, above all over Kosovo. The province has as many Albanians as Transylvania has Hungarians. Since the Tito era closed (in 1981), it has constantly hovered on the brink of - and often slipped over into - civil war.

Parallels go beyond numbers. Transylvania's Hungarians look for their lost rights, not reunion with Hungary. Similarly few Kosovars look toward Albania, however much a Greater Serbia-minded Serbian leadership in Belgrade argues to the contrary. What Albanians riot for is the return of the autonomy of the 1970s and future status as a republic.

Czechs, Poles, Slovaks, and Hungarians all seem concerned to resolve their problems. But with Kosovo, Yugoslavia is the odd man out. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has a bigger problem in Lithuania, but he at least hints at possible compromise in a looser, confederal union. In Kosovo, there has been no talk even of dialogue: Helsinki Watch calls Serbian and Yugoslav federal policy there ``a frightening example'' of one-party dictatorship.

It is ironic that the country that broke first with the Soviet system and established equality among its nationalities for 40 years should now have Eastern Europe's gravest ethnic problem.

Elections in Slovenia and Croatia already warn Belgrade of the secessionist threats ahead. Without Serbian compromise, something worse in Kosovo looks inevitable. Unless, that is, the recent resignation of the leaders of the provincial government over the repressive policies of the Serbian party leadership is to prove to be a first step to inducing wiser councils in Kosovo. -30-{et

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