But Process Is Slow : Communism Eroding in East Europe

Times Staff Writer

Milovan Djilas, at 77, qualifies as the gray eminence of Yugoslav and East European Communist opposition. He did not arrive at this position easily.

He was, in fact, present at the creation of the modern Communist state of Yugoslavia, side by side with Josip Broz Tito. But he broke with Tito, broke with communism, and for his heresies spent 10 years in prison.

After years of harassment, he is now free to travel. His literary works, if not his political essays, are being published in his own country. Silver-haired and courtly, he has become a hero to a new generation of university students. His manner is indeed professorial, his analysis cutting.


‘It’s Disintegrating’

“Communism isn’t changing,” Djilas said the other day. “It’s disintegrating.”

Recent events in Yugoslavia seem to underline Djilas’ comment. But it is important to understand that to Djilas and others, the disintegration of communism in Eastern Europe is viewed as a process--a slow process--unlikely to come with a bang of counterrevolution.

Intellectuals here believe the process is well under way in Yugoslavia. However, it is likely to be equally painful, and even slower, in the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe, all of which are tied closely to the Soviet Union, a burden the Yugoslavs do not have to bear.

To many Westerners, removed from the daily realities of life in Eastern Europe’s Communist states, it may often seem that the change is imminent.

A Kind of Illusion

News articles about fresh strikes in Poland, an apparent rejuvenation of the Solidarity trade union and accounts of new leadership and plans for reform in Hungary all suggest what amounts to a kind of illusion--that communism’s collapse is coming any day.

It is not.

Although the disintegration is evident--in ideology, politics and economics--communism’s leaders are reacting to the threat with either a powerful siege mentality or an assumption that the system can survive by adapting.

The latter premise is debatable, for it has become a central tenet of many opposition thinkers in Eastern Europe that communism is not, in fact, reformable.

It may be tinkered with, this line of thinking goes, but the process of decline will continue because the system’s essential characteristic--the leading role of the Communist Party in the affairs of the economy and the government--simply cannot be shed. And if it is abandoned, communism, as it is known in its present Leninist incarnation, will simply no longer be communism.

Some say the system, in its age of perhaps terminal crisis, can be likened to an edifice--an old apartment building, for example. Its wiring is antiquated, unreliable and hazardous. The plumbing is corroded and clogged. The foundations are cracked and sagging. The masters of the house, however, have nowhere else to go; they must repair it while they live in it. One week, they prop up the sagging basement beams. The next week, workers are patching the roof. The occupants are momentarily cheered when the hallway light fixtures are replaced, but then all the fuses blow.

And that, as a process, is what Djilas has in mind when he says that communism is disintegrating. It is a continuum of irreversible decay, but desperation and sheer force may keep the building standing for many years to come.

A look around the East European landscape shows the edifice, on the whole, looking much sturdier than it does from afar.

It is true that the economies of all the Communist countries of Europe are in difficult shape. Some--Poland and Yugoslavia--are in crises. Three countries are embarked on various approaches to reform--Yugoslavia, Poland and Hungary. Four others--East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania--are doing almost nothing to follow the road of reform indicated by Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

For all of these countries except Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union looms as the largest basic fact of their existence. The Soviet Union, viewing these countries as a bulwark and buffer to the West, is no more likely to accept counterrevolution among them today than it was in the past, when troops were sent to quell Hungary’s rebellion in 1956 and Czechsolvakia’s Prague Spring uprising in 1968.

In each country, as well, the massive coercive forces of the state and the party--the secret police, the networks of informers--are reinforced by the nomenclatura system, the device through which the Communist Party ensures that its people are placed in key positions throughout the state. These include, most importantly, the managers of factories, heavy and light industry and agriculture.

It amounts to the system of patronage, but it is here that the essential crisis of the system has taken root, for during the last 40 years of communism in Eastern Europe, the nomenclatura has increasingly lost touch with the demands and needs of society. A generation of youth, more exposed to travel, to influences of the West, have new standards by which to measure their own lives. The ruling party establishments, by contrast, have remained immutable, largely unable to adapt beyond tightening or loosening the time-honored Communist devices of social control.

The leaders of Poland, in the 1970s, may have been the first to recognize the widening gap between state and society. The measures they took to narrow it reverberate today in Polish streets, factories and shipyards, bringing Poland closer to a state of political and economic “critical mass” than any country in the Soviet Bloc.

The repair job undertaken by party boss Edward Gierek in the 1970s was based on materialism and nationalism. Borrowing heavily from the West, he filled the shops with consumer goods. He replaced the eagle in the Polish crest (though not its crown) and rebuilt the old Wawel Castle. But the materialism begat only more materialism and more hard-currency borrowing, none of it invested in rebuilding or modernizing the state economy.

Simultaneously, the intelligentsia moved to translate the awakened nationalist aspirations into political institutions--giving rise to the formation of KOR, a workers’ rights group; the human rights movement, and a unique coalition of interests involving the intellectuals and the Roman Catholic Church. These forces were all to be joined with the birth of Solidarity.

Poland is a country of vital significance in Eastern Europe--the largest, the most troublesome, the country everyone is watching with either hope or alarm. In the coming days, after the worst year of labor unrest in Poland since the Solidarity era, the Polish government may yet sit down with Solidarity and a variety of other interest groups at the first of the “round-table” discussions proposed by the authorities.

But the outlook is not optimistic. The government has made it clear that it is not prepared to legalize Solidarity, which has been banned for six years. Signs suggest that the government, although fearful during the rounds of strikes in May and August, has girded itself again, at the insistence of the “apparatus” of the party, digging in its heels at any prospect of shared power.

Hungary has gone the farthest on the road to reform, the journey that began in uniquely dark circumstances after the 1956 rebellion and its defeat by Soviet troops. About 2,000 Hungarians were executed after that trauma, and its scars have lasted a generation.

The man the Soviets installed to preside over the purges and trials was Janos Kadar. Although he was regarded as little more than a glorified party puppet upon taking office, he ruled the Hungarian Communist Party until May, and history may yet judge him as the man who brought Hungarians closer that any Soviet Bloc nation to a peaceful transformation of the system.

Narrowing the Gap

Over time, Kadar loosened the reins. He gradually gave members of the intelligentsia the right to travel and to publish. Workers’ wages were increased, their living standards improved. Aided perhaps by the country’s small size, its close culture, its distance from Moscow, its difficult language, its clever way with a wink and a nod, Kadar helped narrow the gap between the governors and the governed. He introduced two sets of important reforms in 1968 and 1981, when the watchful Soviets were too preoccupied with Czechoslovakia and Poland, respectively, to raise much of a fuss.

Kadar, 77, was replaced in May by Karoly Grosz. As a new party head, he has pledged to press on with economic innovations--including the formation of a stock market. (A bond market already exists.) In effect, it is a kind of shift in logic, an experiment in approaching capitalism from within. The larger experiment in Hungary centers on whether it is possible to introduce genuine economic reform without political reform as well, and whether any such reform will succeed without surrendering the leading role of the Communist Party.

That is the unresolved debate in Hungary today, a debate that in fact represents a kind of rebirth of Hungarian political culture, largely destroyed by the Communist takeover in 1947.

Rezso Nyers, a Politburo member and leading architect of the reform, a figure who is a link between prewar Communists and today’s reformers, said at the May party meeting that he one day foresees, not in his lifetime but eventually, the return of a parliamentary democracy in Hungary.

To a member of the Czechoslovak Politburo, that vision would be a nightmare and nothing to talk about in public.

Although there is strong competition from Romania, Czechoslovakia is in some ways the most depressing country in Eastern Europe. The Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia were centers of genuine democratic institutions before World War I, and after 1918, when the Czechoslovak state was founded, it was the only democratic state in Eastern Europe. It had a strong industrial base, a solid, hard-working middle class and no aristocracy.

This history is important in order to understand why the Czechoslovak Communist leadership has never introduced reforms and pays only the mildest of lip service to the trends of change coming from the Soviet Union. These Communist leaders have always believed they have to be the hardest of hard-liners to overcome their country’s democratic tradition.

The tradition has been evident even in the Communist Party, divided from its earliest years between a social democratic and a hard-line Bolshevik wing. The Bolshevik wing won most of the decisive showdowns, especially in 1948, ushering in a Stalinist-style rule more enthusiastic than anywhere else in the Communist Bloc. It did not relent until the late 1950s, with the thaw in Moscow, when the old “liberal” wing of the party began to rise once more. It was this wing of the Communist Party that ultimately engineered the Prague Spring of 1968.

To the hard-liners, placed back in control after those events, the Prague Spring was further proof that the old thread of Czech democratic thinking had not been eradicated. The hard-liners would take no more chances. It is a style of thinking that is very much in evidence today in Prague, which only last week took the preemptive step of removing from office the premier, who had gained a reputation of being not a “liberal” but a kind of “pragmatist.”

Coercion, Materialism

Since 1968, party leader Gustav Husak and his successor Milos Jakes have consolidated their restoration of order through policies of coercion, materialism, no unemployment and a reasonable standard of living. A combination of corruption, bribery, demoralization and dachas in the country for middle-income Czechoslovaks have brought them peace and quiet.

But Czechoslovaks have learned to wait. Although the Poles mock them for cowardice and failing to stand up to their regime, Czech culture has been slowly revived. The Roman Catholic Church has become an important center of opposition--not overt, but as an inspiration behind the spread of samizdat , or underground, literature and the search for alternative values among the youth. In the last 20 years, Czechoslovak writing has eloquently rewritten the history of Communist Czechoslovakia.

And while they wait, Czechoslovaks simply opt out, filling the roads late on Friday morning as they drive to their weekend houses and retreat into their private lives, escaping as much as they are able from the babble of programs and talk that comes from their leaders in the castle on the hill.

In the two Balkan states of Bulgaria and Romania, nothing in the way of reform is happening. There is no serious opposition in either country and no prospect for immediate change. The situation might be best summed up by an off-the-record remark from a Soviet diplomat, who said of Romania, “Where there’s death, there’s hope.”

In Bulgaria, Todor Zhivkov, 77, is Eastern Europe’s longest surviving party leader, ruling with a mixture of benevolent despotism and patronage, now slowly hardening into a defensive resistance to change.

Zhivkov once prided himself on being one of the region’s first leaders to de-Stalinize, relaxing his guard on intellectuals and even introducing cautious economic reforms. But he has never faced opposition outside the party. The country’s only dissident writer was slain in London, stabbed by a poison-tipped umbrella--a lesson that was well taken back home in Sofia.

His daughter, Ludmila Zhivkova, who introduced a measure of freedom into the Bulgarian cultural atmosphere and who might have helped engineer a political liberalization as well, died in 1981. Since then, Zhivkov has systematically removed anyone who might challenge his power. Once well ahead of the Soviet Union in its reforms, Bulgaria is now well behind.

Romania, under the domination of Nicolae Ceausescu (and his wife, Elena), remains true to the spirit of Stalinism, a country of almost surreal misery.

Top to bottom, it is a police state. The apparatus of government is given over almost totally to the official admiration of the Ceausescus.

A clever maverick in the Communist world, Ceausescu was for many years courted by the West, in the naive belief that this renegade was somehow a wedge in the Communist Bloc. At their height, famed for opposition to the Prague invasion, relations with the Chinese and diplomatic links with Israel, the Ceausescus were honored overnight guests in Buckingham Palace.

Attempting to modernize Romanian industry, Ceausescu borrowed heavily in the 1970s. By 1981, Romania had a severe hard-currency debt and no prospects of new loans without restructuring the centrally planned economy, a suggestion that came from the International Monetary Fund and Western governments.

Instead of taking the IMF suggestion, Ceausescu embarked on a crash program to pay back the loans, gearing Romanian industry to produce for export, leaving the absolute minimum for domestic consumption. The result has been rationed electricity and gasoline, homes heated in winter to 40 degrees and food stores where shoppers feel fortunate to walk out with a bag of chicken feet to flavor their watery stews.

In this grim atmosphere, the most basic human rights are ignored. Any shred of opposition is immediately silenced. The national minorities, such as the Hungarians, are being uprooted from their farms and relocated in the cities. All Bucharest is being destroyed for the construction of a massive government complex, a grand avenue through the center of the city leading to a towering state palace, Ceausescu’s loony monument to himself.

East Germany is unique in the Soviet Bloc because of its relationship to the West--specifically, to West Germany. Its leader for 17 years has been Erich Honecker, 75, who is treated with gingerly respect by Moscow. East Germany is important to the Soviets--for its stability, its industrial capacity, its German work ethic and, perhaps most importantly, for its relationship with Bonn.

Honecker has been distinctly cool to pressure for change from the Soviet Union, a pressure that has not been relieved by East Germany’s declining economic performance in recent years. Its industrial output has fallen along with its ability to compete on world markets.

At the same time, pressure from beneath is growing--from the youth, from the Protestant churches and the Greens movement. There have been rumblings of discontent on the Politburo. Verner Fefle, the recently deceased Central Committee member in charge of agriculture, last year suggested that East Germany streamline its economy and apply for membership in the World Bank and the IMF--a suggestion that Honecker rejected flatly.

While the Soviets are not happy with the situation, Honecker’s hole card is Bonn, which has never relinquished its long-term goal of a reunited Germany.

If the West Germans are not always able to deal with East Germany directly, Bonn’s increasing trade relations with the rest of the Communist Bloc have always provided a back-door approach to influence East German affairs. The Soviets are wary, but they welcome the inflow of West German cash and technology. They keep their peace, and Honecker keeps his place.

Yugoslavia, not aligned and free of a Soviet threat, may well be, as Djilas believes, the first Communist country of Europe to throw off the system.

“The situation here now is like the eve of a revolution,” Djilas said. “All parts of society are malcontented. The central authority is weak and unable to act.”

Yugoslavia is a federation of six republics and two autonomous provinces--each with its own Communist Party and government--and a central government that is essentially leaderless since the death of Tito is 1980.

Its economy, burdened by a heavy foreign debt, allows some small-scale private enterprise, but it is sagging under the usual Communist load of inefficient, outdated, centrally controlled industry. Its efforts at reform, and at paying back its $21-billion debt, have sent inflation soaring over 200%. Unemployment is rising, and major strikes break out at the rate of 30 per week.

A new element thrown into the Yugoslav turmoil is the rise of Slobodan Milosevic, the party chief from the republic of Serbia, who has been catapulted to importance here by championing the grievances of the populist Serbs in their campaign to reclaim the two provinces, Kosovo and Vojvodina, that were stripped from Serbia after World War II.

Although the development seems in some ways a revival of troublesome Yugoslav nationalism, it has taken on an added dimension in the current, economically tense climate of the country. Milosevic’s supporters have mounted huge demonstrations to press their demands, giving rise to charges that Milosevic is using mob rule and demagoguery to strike for national leadership.

Opinions are sharply divided over his long-term goals, and Milosevic pointedly does not spell them out. His supporters say his goal is to change the system. His critics, so far in the majority, are not so sure.

Nor is it certain how far Milosevic can ride on purely Serbian popular feeling. What is clear is that he has thrown a scare into a hesitant and inept federal leadership, which moved sharply this week to checkmate Milosevic and protect its hold on power by replacing a few token members of the federal party’s Central Committee.

What may be equally significant in the future, some opposition thinkers say, is that the voice of the crowd was demonstrated as an effective tool for demanding change.

Dangerous as it is, they say, that idea may be hard for Yugoslavs to forget.