IN the ecstatic early months after the East bloc revolutions of 1989, even skeptics imagined that the events represented an ultimate triumph of human freedom. Politicians on both sides of the great divide declared that the transparency of the information age had rendered oppression almost obsolete.
Unfortunately, they may have spoken too soon. A recent report from Freedom House, a New York-based human rights organization, finds that after an initial upsurge of liberating revolutions, the tide has reversed itself and is receding at an alarming rate. Using a set of indices including free elections, freedom from intimidation, and undue governmental interference in the lives of citizens, the report divides the world's 160-plus nations into free, unfree, and partially free. In 1993 the number of countries judged unfree swelled by 17 to 55 - fully one-third of the world's nations. If the Freedom House report is to be believed, 500 million people have lost their liberty in the last 365 days alone, averaging an astonishing 1.3 million a day.
Some dispute particular designations. For example, Thailand, a corrupt but constitutional monarchy, is classified as ``unfree'' along with Albania, a Stalinist police state. But the larger trend seems undeniable. In Eastern Europe, those who witnessed experiments triggered by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika have seen hard-won political freedoms eroded by increasing inequality and insecurity. In Angola, free elections were held but then annulled by an angry Jonas Savimbi, who returned to the slaughter to gain on the battlefield what he couldn't in the voting booth.
Most troubling for the fate of free institutions elsewhere are the rapidly disintegrating reforms in Russia. Its size, history, and residual military power dictate a pivotal place in the planet's affairs, whatever its internal condition. For the past few years, Western leaders have taken for granted that Russia would remain a supine and defeated adversary, treating it alternately with neglect and contempt. A generation of gifted leaders in the East found itself mismatched with timid and uninspired leaders in the West.
Immersed in long-denied domestic difficulties and working with budgets constrained by recession, Western politicians have been loath to ask for public support for reconstruction overseas when so much needs rebuilding at home. Though a thoroughly legitimate stance, it fails to recognize that peace requires just as substantial an investment as war if it is to succeed; if it does not succeed, our own peace and freedom will be substantially diminished. Politicians have proven consummately capable of mustering support for campaigns to conquer other nations but seldom yet to reconstruct them.
The recent victory of ultranationalists and ex-communists in free elections in Russia, civil war in the Balkans, the murderous rise of organized crime and the presence of the old apparat in new regimes of the former Eastern bloc testify to the difficulty of sustaining freedom and reform when there is little native fertility and still less nourishment from abroad. Embittered by the failure of Western nations to deliver on repeated promises of massive material assistance, many Easterners are beginning to support those who offer iron-fisted security in place of personal freedom, and national pride amid the increasing degradation.
Even in the victorious, affluent West, freedom is being sorely tested by increasing insecurity. Throughout Western Europe, the most politically active youth no longer march for peace but maraud the land to root out foreigners. They are matched by politicians who, with flaccid responses, appear to tolerate if not condone the thugs' exclusionary aims.
At the heart of these new threats to liberal institutions is a profound confusion over what freedom entails. The Western political tradition has always defined it in terms of rights, the East in terms of needs. For Westerners, democratic political institutions and a so-called free economy delineate the preconditions of liberty. Beyond these guarantees, each individual is considered to be on his or her own. It is a system that has rewarded many but left many others stranded in misery. In the East (and, to a great degree, in the developing world), harsher conditions have assured freedom from the most severe forms of material deprivation, but too often at the expense of civil freedoms.
Western advisers traveling East have peddled a rights-based definition of freedom but have tragically ignored its needs-based dimension. In so doing, they have undermined their own efforts: Freedom can't long endure on an empty stomach. Given the false and cruel choice between the right to eat and the right to vote, not even Patrick Henry would have chosen liberty.
Moreover, in their uncritical support of Russian President Boris Yeltsin's moves to concentrate power under his new constitution, Western leaders have only assured that if and when Mr. Yeltsin falls, his replacement will hold the weapons of renewed tyranny firmly in hand. Propelled to power by a desperately deprived populace, the new ruler will enjoy a mandate to dismantle what few freedoms have taken root in Russia's stony soil.
None of these dire possibilities is inevitable, but they become increasingly likely as each month passes without a decisive response by the West to the danger signals emerging from the East. Resurgent nationalism in Russia would send shock waves across the planet, destabilizing fragile experiments in the East and feeding a reactionary response in the West. In the East and West (and by extension in the developing world), liberal institutions and values will come under stresses as great as those that beset and ultimately broke totalitarian rule during the past decade. And they will not be eased until we find ways to assure the world's peoples both the civil rights and material requirements that freedom entails. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.