Coup's Lessons for Central Europe

THE remarkable events in Moscow last week accentuate the debate over Western aid to promote democracy. Naturally, the focus of attention will be on the Soviet Union itself. But Western policymakers must not ignore the coup's impact on another region attempting to shed its communist past: Central and Eastern Europe.For supporters of increased aid to the USSR, it is tempting to interpret the coup attempt as a product of the decision not to provide Mikhail Gorbachev with massive assistance at last month's economic summit. In the wake of the coup, pressure will increase to provide the USSR with large doses of economic aid to inoculate it against future instability. Conversely, opponents of large-scale assistance - including many within the Bush administration - will argue that Western aid had little to do with the coup plotters' decision to set up the "State Committee on the State of Emergency in the USSR." Domestic factors were far more important, especially the impending signing of the all-union treaty. Opponents of Western assistance will reiterate their view that, unless fundamental structural changes are made in the Soviet economy, Western aid will be wasted. Regardless of this debate, the recent coup attempt underscores another region's acute vulnerability to developments within the Soviet Union. For nervous Poles, Czechs, and Hungarians, a successful coup would have been disastrous. But a failed one is scarcely less ominous. These countries face a variety of threats from unrest in the East at a time when they are seeking to put into place the type of radical, painful reforms that many in the West have been urging on Gorbachev. A successful coup would almost certainly have been a grave threat to the security and stability of Central Europe. While a new leadership in Moscow would have had its hands full establishing control within its borders, repercussions would have been felt throughout the former Warsaw Pact countries. Even if the reactionary "black colonels" accepted the demise of the Warsaw Pact and the withdrawal of Soviet troops as a temporary fait accompli, the military situation would be precarious. Czechoslovakia's res ponse to the coup attempt - moving troops to the border - highlighted this concern. The military implications were not lost on the Central Europeans who used the coup to reassert their interest in joining NATO. To promote stability within the region, NATO countries should explore ways to provide some sort of security guarantee to Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. The coup attempt poses a more serious economic and political threat to the region. Many of these countries were already reeling from the decline in Soviet imports which accounted for an overwhelming proportion of their foreign trade. Firms have already gone bankrupt, swelling the ranks of the unemployed and contributing to growing social discontent. THE aftermath of the coup will produce ongoing economic and political turmoil in Moscow. Refugees from troubled areas within the USSR are certain to tax the fragile economies of Central Europe. And the region's leaders are likely to draw their own conclusions from the coup about how much social discontent they can endure during the transition to a market economy. To help prevent these developments, the US and other Western powers need to step up their economic and political assistance to these countries. For example, the swift passage of the Support for Eastern Europe Democracy (SEED II) legislation would send a message of support to democrats throughout the region and discourage those hoping to take advantage of unrest to subvert the unfolding process of democracy. Western technical, financial, and economic assistance can play a vital role in helping these nations develop into prosperous, stable democracies. The structural impediments hindering the integration of these countries into the world economy - such as the European Community's policies on textile and agricultural imports - need to be scrapped. This will let these nations find alternative markets for their exports. The turmoil in Moscow makes clear one prudent course of action for Western policymakers: accelerate aid efforts to shore up the fragile front-line democracies in Central Europe. Whatever the fallout of the abortive coup attempt, the evolution of Central Europe toward prosperous, market-oriented democracies is the best way to contain the damage and hold out hope for the future.

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