New Institutions Take Root in Former Communist Lands

EASTERN Europe rarely makes the front pages of Western newspapers these days, nor does it dominate inside foreign pages as it did in 1990 and throughout last year.

But that doesn't mean the revolutions have run out of steam.

In varying degrees, all the revolutions are still on a democratic course. Transition from state control to free market remains the official goal.

News from Eastern Europe, however, almost exclusively focuses on the economy, which doesn't make splash headlines as the fall of the old dictators and their systems did.

A batch of stories from the early days of this year illustrates the phenomenon: "Eastern promise tempts Air France to Czechoslovakia." Or "Mercedes in Czech truck deal." "East steps boldly into European market.Poles switch off shock therapy."

The big news is that Western airlines are bidding hard for stakes in rescuing Eastern Europe's ailing state carriers. Giant car groups like Italy's Fiat, Germany's Mercedes and Volkswagen, and General Motors see the potential long-term gain of a vast East European market, once economic reform is firmly in place.

The East Europeans are in a race for membership in the European Community. Starting in March, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary will secure increased access and reduced tariffs for some of their vital exports.

Two years after the breakup of the old bloc began, the success of reforms is checkered. Generally, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary have made more progress than the southern states, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania.

But the north and south face the common problems of declining production and living standards, as the changeover brings lower real income and higher market prices.

IN the process of transition, political and social difficulties become increasingly sensitive.

Poland - first in the field - began the new year announcing a slowdown in its ambitious privatization program in order to concentrate on what is ambiguously called an "industrial policy" to help remaining state enterprises.

Poland has other special problems. Last October's elections failed to decide a clear winner. And the country has big trade unions - the old Solidarity, ostensibly pro-government, and the "official" ones created under martial law. None have had remarkable success in "protecting" the workers against the austerity inherent in reform.

In Czechoslovakia, unemployment shot up so rapidly critics charged change came too fast and was too painful, the argument which prompted Poland's slowdown. But the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has praised Prague for its "notable" progress toward a market economy.

Hungary's economic performance last year continued to be the soundest in Eastern Europe. It has the common problems, but it also has a certain political stability others lack.

Tensions between Czechoslovakia's republics threaten to tear the nation apart. Other governments, too, are troubled by ethnic passions and often ugly nationalism. Romania still has a communist president. In Bulgaria, a presidential vote has just seen the former communists again poll well, but fail to win the presidency.

Much of all this apparent uncertainty, however, may be attributed to nothing more than the growing pains of newly created democratic structures and a public unprepared for democracy.

The multicolored dissident umbrella, under which the communist monolith was toppled, has served its purpose. As was sooner or later inevitable, its components are breaking up into new alignments and parties of the center, center-right, and, to lesser extent so far, leftist variations aiming to emulate West European social democracy's example.

More and more, in all these countries, it looks as if pluralism really is beginning to work.

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