SINCE 1945, the military stalemate in Central Europe has fanned fears of conflict and crisis. The recent collapse of Soviet power in the region and the continued withdrawal of Soviet military forces have reduced the possibility of such a confrontation virtually to zero. Below the surface in the former East-bloc countries, however, dangerous tensions are building between civilians and the yet to be removed Soviet forces. Some observers fear that a combination of local resentment of the Soviet occupation along with low morale and economic hardships within the Soviet armed forces could be a recipe for a crisis.
Sporadic violence and conflict have already occurred. A series of violent deaths involving Soviet military personnel in Germany, Poland, and Hungary is considered the work of angry civilians. In mid-August, one Soviet army colonel was found shot to death near an East Berlin roadway. And in recent weeks two Soviet enlisted soldiers were brutally beaten to death on a secluded road in Hungary.
According to German intelligence sources, 13 assaults against Soviet personnel have been reported over the past month, most involving serious injuries. The actual number is in reality much higher, because Soviet personnel who report such incidents are likely to be punished by their superiors, whether they are partially responsible or not.
In Poland, there have been two ``shoot-bys'' in the past three weeks, in which Soviet military barracks were sprayed with indiscriminate gunfire from passing cars. In a separate incident, a poison-gas grenade was tossed into Soviet barracks southeast of Warsaw, seriously injuring dozens of soldiers. And the Soviet-government newspaper Izvestia warns that in Czechoslovakia, ``hostile feelings on the part of the country's population'' are on the rise.
Soviet military personnel for their part have become increasingly involved in serious crimes, including extortion and random violence. Low morale and the prospects of returning to an increasingly impoverished USSR are seen as the causes. Hungarian television's ``Evening Magazine'' recently reported that in the tiny village of Tab, a Soviet commander at the local garrison threatened in July to demolish the village food store, school, and nursery unless he was paid 5 million forints. Hungary's Braislava Pravda recently reported that a Soviet air force unit issued similar demands to another village, and dumped 6,900 liters of crude-oil derivatives into a local waterway when they were not met.
In Germany alone, Soviet military personnel have been involved in 409 break-ins and burglaries in the first eight months of this year, according to intelligence officials. Often the thieves are after televisions, appliances, and other goods with value on the black market.
The situation may get worse. Since residents and Soviet forces are competing for resources, worsening economic conditions threaten to make competition more keen and heighten local resentment. Discipline is increasingly a problem within the Soviet armed forces stationed there. Local commanders who once would have seriously disciplined violators are themselves increasingly involved in illicit activities.
Military budget cuts are expected to lead to the dismissal of a large percentage of the officer corps. Job prospects in the Soviet Union for these men will be minimal. Those who manage to stay in the service will shortly be stationed in the Soviet Union, with little access to luxury goods and with old perks eliminated. ```Grab when you can before it's too late,' is the new Soviet military oath,'' says one German intelligence official.
At the same time that discipline decays in the Soviet army, the public in these emerging democracies is getting increasingly impatient with the continued Soviet presence. Contracts to provide Soviet forces with local produce and other scarce goods continue to be honored, for fear that the Soviets might otherwise start footdragging on withdrawal. These contracts are extremely unpopular, however, and will become even more so as these economies make painful adjustments toward a freer market over the next several years.
Soviet forces are expected to be out of Czechoslovakia and Hungary by July 1991. Soviet forces will not be out of Germany until 1994, and no decision has yet been made in Poland. While some experts believe that tensions and conflict will only grow, it would be very difficult logistically to carry out the withdrawals any quicker, military sources say.
Whether a crisis is averted in eastern Germany may depend on the efficient use of German funds committed to maintaining Soviet forces on German soil. Some European observers have suggested that the Red Cross and other relief organizations may be needed in the next several months.
The United States should continue to monitor the relationship between the occupiers and the occupied in these countries, and consider providing food aid and other assistance as needed. It would be a shame if we saw widespread violence in the region just as it begins its move to normalcy.