East Rethinks Pace, Not Goal, of Reform

THE Polish elections of Sept. 19 provided the anticipated success of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) formed after the collapse of the old Communist Party.

But one rose does not make a summer, nor does what happened in Poland amount to the ``new specter'' in Eastern Europe visualized by some of Europe's English-language news media.

The headline of one British daily talked of a ``Red Tide'' threatening the area. ``A Passion for Communism Rekindled,'' said another. A third saw ``The Left Reborn'' amid disillusionment with capitalism.

Well, hardly yet, even though there is wide disappointment with the results of reform thus far. It was the strategy of rapid reform, not change itself, that was the focus of the Polish election, as it will be in other East European states whose new noncommunist governments face the same acute social problems of skyrocketing prices, unemployment, and profiteering.

The Polish result is certainly significant of public mood. But such a mood has been widespread ever since Lithuania returned the communists to power almost a year ago.

Slovenia and Macedonia, both states in the former communist Yugoslavia, are also led by Communists, but of generally recognized ability and record as advocates of free-market democracy within the old regimes.

Bulgaria and Albania have the biggest ex-communist parties in Eastern Europe outside single-party Serbia. They also have freely elected governments. But splits within their ruling, broadly conservative governments and local nationalist attitudes pose greater threats to them than does any allure for the past.

In Poland, the ``new communists'' of the SLD - easily the biggest winner among six parties gaining seats in parliament - must obviously carry the most weight in the coalition with the Peasant Party (the second-biggest) that has now emerged.

SLD itself is committed to continuing reform that has already put Poland economically ahead of the rest, but it is committed to what its leaders call reform with a ``more social'' face. There may be difficulties for its coalition partner, with the rural farm lobby making demands the government just cannot satisfy.

But any concessions to popular yearning for the old communist-era social safety net should not be read as an antireform vote. The main losers in the Polish elections were the right-wing parties and parties backed by the Roman Catholic Church, not the pro-reform Democratic Union government of Hanna Suchocka.

Whatever the mix of motives behind the way Poles voted, their sum signifies no desire for returning to the past. Half of the eligible Poles did not even bother to vote.

Aside from Slovenia and Macedonia, the newcomers in the East European left are ``new'' in ideology and style. They are younger and more mature. They talk neither of Marxism nor Leninism. They are not stereotyped apparatchiks of the old mold, nor ``born again'' relics of the communist hierarchy.

A notable example is Aleksander Kwasniewski, the leader of Poland's SLD, who was youth minister during the dour martial-law era of the 1980s. During a 1987 Monitor interview, he already showed a pragmatic outlook and often seemed embarrassed by the government's handling of the Solidarity movement.

``We can only meet youth on its own ground,'' he said. ``Individualism is going to go deeper and deeper and the best we can do is to try to meet its human need.''

If that is to be the criteria that he and the new ``social democrats'' apply to democratization and the economic transition, they are likely to go on winning votes. But it will be in the Western democratic manner, not because of some ``red tide.''

It will also be where the West might help. The East Europeans are still only slightly closer to being admitted to the European Community, largely because the EC itself is stalling the process during a difficult recession. Rather than playing up a perceived Eastern threat to Western economies, EC members should remove most of the remaining cold-war-era trade barriers. Doing so would only spur all the new democratic processes in the East.

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