East Europe's Thaw Isn't Controlled or Risk-Free . . .

Robert E. Hunter is director of European studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The anointing of a Solidarity-led government in Poland is by no means the beginning of the end of Soviet power in Eastern Europe; indeed, a difficult and potentially dangerous period lies ahead.

Following a host of mostly pleasant surprises from Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, it is tempting to see human progress as inevitable in rejecting four decades of rigid communist domination of Eastern Europe. Today, beyond Solidarity's new role in governing Poland, Hungary is throwing open its border with Austria and embracing Western economics, and even the Soviet Union is giving the Baltic republics enormous latitude for independent action.

If anything is certain, however, it is that East European politics will not lead, steadily and unimpeded, from a rigid glacis dominated by Soviet security paranoia and the primacy of communist regimes to an "Austrian solution" of neutral states firmly tied to the Western economic system and political practices. For this to happen, Gorbachev and his colleagues would have to reject a millennium of Russian history, and this they will not do.

Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity and the most potent challenge to Moscow, paid tribute to this point when he declined to assume office as prime minister. Nor is Solidarity firmly in charge, despite Tadeusz Mazowiecki's accepting the position that his colleague Walesa declined. Poland's Communist president remains commander-in-chief of the armed forces; government portfolios for defense and interior (police) remain in Communist hands. And Solidarity has affirmed Poland's loyalty to the Warsaw Pact.

Most striking, as Poland begins what is nevertheless a remarkable experiment, is that there is no basis in East-West relations for dealing with this or other emerging phenomena. At the moment, leaders are talking past one another. Gorbachev makes his bid to be a major arbiter of Europe's future--both East and West--by proclaiming a "common European home," while President George Bush calls for a "Europe whole and free." The visions are not compatible. One asserts Moscow's prerogatives in any process of change. The other avers that realignment of European security must be on the basis of Western victory.

There is, of course, merit in the Western view. There will be no unification of Europe until the East European states can be stable without the presence of occupying troops, foreign or domestic. That implies politics with popular roots, economics that provide hope and social peace based on an open compact between leaders and those led. In a word, each of the states that lie between the Soviet border and the West must undergo a revolution to make possible such stable politics.

The Soviet Union's tolerance is the key. At the moment, it can accept Western investment in Eastern Europe that eases the burden on the Kremlin treasury. It can even let Solidarity become responsible for trying--and likely failing--to sort out the Polish economy. Far less clear is whether Moscow would permit the expulsion of Communists from government or uncontrolled expressions of a contagion, nationalism, that inevitably comes with relaxed rules. No one outside the Soviet Union can predict the limits of its tolerance. More important, Gorbachev himself probably does not know them, and that fact increases the danger.

Western leaders are sensitive to the risks. During his July visit to Poland and Hungary, Bush talked of the future's promise but was careful not to provoke the Russian bear. Even the limited amount of U.S. aid that he proposed, a mere $125 million, reassured the Soviets while it disappointed his hosts. And at the seven-nation economic summit, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl proposed that the European Commission in Brussels take charge of coordinating Western economic relations with East Europe. This deft maneuver permits the United States to avoid taking the lead and provides political cover for West Germany's growing economic involvement with the East. But the commission's new role also underscores the European Community's economic magnetism, which inevitably spells erosion of Soviet influence and thus a challenge to Moscow.

Most significantly, it is doubtful that change can be carefully controlled by anyone. A harbinger has appeared in Budapest, where East Germans seeking the benefits of life in the Federal Republic have camped in the West German embassy, in a mini-reenactment of the 1961 human flood that led to the Berlin Wall. The Bonn government quickly understood the risks for its efforts to reduce barriers between the two Germanies and closed the embassy.

Given a chance, people will indeed vote with their feet; and the regimes in Czechoslovakia and especially East Germany, which lack Poland's political blend of Communists and Catholics or Hungary's decade of experimenting with economic reform, may break because they will not bend before new winds blowing elsewhere in the Communist world.

At the NATO summit in May, President Bush proclaimed the goal of ending the division of Europe and acknowledged, tacitly, that military power is of declining utility in determining relative influence on the Continent. But in Poland and Hungary, he also demonstrated that the United States will not bankroll change in Eastern Europe--indeed, that it will not tax itself to pay for the new era's foreign policy.

There is merit in expecting the West Europeans to play a major role in helping to reshape the Continent's politics. But the 12 states of the European Community, economically uniting but politically disparate, will be no match in bargaining with the Soviet Union over the fate of Eastern Europe without the active and imaginative engagement of U.S. power and influence. In the wake of Solidarity's political breakthrough, the Bush Administration must begin crafting some useful designs of its own--and it must commit the resources to make them effective.

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