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The Curtain Rises: Eastern Europe, 1989 : PROLOGUE : Empty Shelves--and Empty Promises

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Why does an apple fall when it is ripe? Is it brought down by the force of gravity? Is it because its stalk withers? Because it is dried by the sun, because it grows too heavy, or the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing under the tree wants to eat it?

--Tolstoy, “War and Peace”

You could see these men in the evening in certain cafes in Bratislava or Bydgoszc, Krakow or Kecskemet, Leipzig or Poznan, at the end of a hard day’s door-holding for the Communist Party. In the vernacular of America, they would have been a step up from ward-heelers.

Here they had a look, a style all their own--gray suits, furry hats, plastic briefcases, rubber-soled shoes smearing the wet and snow of the East European January on the marble floor under their table, their heavy, choleric faces brightening over their third round of vodka, the little glasses filled to the brim, diamond clear and tremulous.

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If it was truth and light in those little glasses, there wasn’t much of it to be found anywhere else.

So, once or twice a week, they would gather after work--three or four friends from the Office of Scientific and Technical Progress, Youth Affairs and Sports, or the control and audit commission of the People’s Provincial Council--and survey their dwindling assets.

It wasn’t easy for them to say why their fortunes were eroding, or to describe exactly how, but it was happening. They could feel it.

With a kind of sixth sense common to the vulnerable, they read the signs, saw the new glisten of fear on the faces of those who had always been the protected ones, watched their hurried footsteps down the corridor’s sludge-gray carpet, heard the padded, soundproof doors of the nomenklatura closing quickly over animated conversations.

These men at the table, well drunk by 7 p.m., were not nomenklatura --the protected and privileged ranks of the Communist Party. They were below that, just beyond the point of first-name familiarity with the potentates in their office buildings, just far enough outside that even the smallest conversation with one of them would be reported here over the vodka, in some detail.

Shut out of the inner councils, they remained within the circle of gossip, close enough to feel the . . . unease. Panic was still too strong a word. It was unease, a growing unease.

And so by 8 p.m., no longer caring much, they would have to help each other into their coats and out the doors into the cold; one to the tram, one to the bus, one to the underground, for the ride out to blocks of apartments where the garbage bins were overflowing and stinking in the stairwells and the elevator still wasn’t fixed. And so another day.

At the beginning of 1989, a kind of lull had settled over Communist Eastern Europe. In Warsaw, Prague, Budapest, East Berlin, Sofia and Bucharest, the capitals of the Warsaw Pact, the acid smell of smoke from low-grade coal hung in the air with the heavy mists of winter and, in the calm, ate slowly away at the buildings and monuments and the life-expectancy statistics. A sense of gloom fell with the soot.

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In Poland, unless you were very lucky, you couldn’t buy a bed or find a razor blade. Poles stripped the goods off store shelves the moment they arrived. What they didn’t use they hauled across the borders to sell--any border, in any direction--turning themselves into the pariahs of the East Bloc. Shops in East Berlin posted warnings: “No Poles Allowed,” and Czechoslovak and Hungarian police regularly beat up Polish traders.

In Czechoslovakia, to the great embarrassment of the regime, there was a sudden shortage of sanitary napkins--and a public outcry inspiring an official analysis of the situation and emergency imports from China. Czechoslovaks were not used to such indignities, however chronic they might be in the Soviet Union.

In eastern Hungary, about 50,000 workers staged a 10-minute strike to protest rising prices. The prime minister warned that there would be more increases in the future and promised that the government would do what it could to supplement the incomes of those most severely hurt.

In East Germany, supposedly the East Bloc’s economic success story, real incomes had not risen in four years.

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President Mikhail S. Gorbachev had been in power that long in the Soviet Union, and although bets were still made over how long he might survive, he had established one principle that would be difficult to revoke: It was no longer forbidden to speak of the general crisis faced by the socialist system. For the first time since Stalin sealed control over Eastern Europe at the end of World War II, a Soviet leader had made it possible to say aloud what everyone had known for years--the economic system was not only not working, it was in a state of advanced collapse.

For Gorbachev, free--or freer--speech was a practical tool to force the Communist Party to face reality. The Soviet Union was going broke and physically falling apart. It was not only technologically backward, it had serious problems even providing enough food for its people. It was like Ethiopia with missiles.

With the lid suddenly off, confusion reigned, time seemed to speed up. Now there were riots in Azerbaijan and Armenia, and the streets of Riga and Tallinn rang with cries for independence for the Baltic states. The food stalls of Moscow were barren. There was virtually no sugar; the price of vodka was a half-day’s standing in line. Afghanistan was an admitted blunder.

The party’s intellectuals in Poland and Hungary, the official journalists and theoreticians, had been the first in the East Bloc to embrace the new theme that something had gone wrong. And by now, their tensely wrought and often bitter essays were bumping up against the next big question: Could the economic free-fall be broken without also breaking apart the system?

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To the Communist Party leadership of Eastern Europe, it was not exactly news to say the system was not working. It never had worked very well. But for 40 years, Moscow had taught advanced techniques for cooking the books, methods that transcended mere bookkeeping legerdemain. If the numbers were bad, a proper “analysis” somehow put it right. It was a kind of socialist mysticism, a faith in “clear assessments.” The numbers on the potato harvest, steel output or meat consumption didn’t change, but it was all right. The idea of scrapping the system was like burning down the house to repair the plumbing.

It ran counter to every instinct.

Moscow also had given instruction on the party--how to use the party to run the factories, the universities, the town councils, the church and, of course, the police. The great unifying theme, the underlying principle, was the maintenance of control. And that was the next great leap, for the logic of the Gorbachev experiment, whether it was intended at the beginning or not, was now gnawing at the heart of the system: control. And the system, with all its carefully designed institutions of self-preservation, was instinctively resisting.

The leaders of Eastern Europe, at the opening of 1989, stood like pedestrians facing a sea of slush at an ice-clogged storm sewer: To leap, and risk skidding out of control on the other side, or wade through the mess? In their lifetimes, all the received wisdom of Communist methodology, every murmured Kremlin counsel, argued for the hard-but-sure method. Do what you must, sacrifice yourself if necessary, but keep the system going. Was there now new advice?

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Eastern Europe, at the beginning of 1989, was launched on a year that neither those in control nor those in opposition could even vaguely imagine. It was to be a year equal in importance to 1945, perhaps even to 1917, the year it all began. It was the end, or the beginning of the end, of a tunnel 72 years long.

* In Poland last January, the price of sugar, if you could find it in a state store, had risen from 165 to 210 zlotys a bag, and the elderly were bewildered and dispirited, although not surprised much. Alexander Kwaszniewski, an up-and-coming young member of the ruling Polish United Workers’ (Communist) Party, proudly organized a Central Committee headquarters open house for young people--he took pride in his connections with them--and watched with some apprehension while the party leaders, in their gray suits, got a face full of acid complaint (“You have ruined this country!”).

Kwaszniewski was not much surprised either, but much of the whole show got on television, which he thought might win him some points both with the students and the ascendant liberal wing of the party, to which he had long ago tied his fortunes.

* In Hungary, Politburo member Imre Pozsgay, as always, was moving through Hungarian Communist politics with a soft tread and a sharp blade. Fifty-six years old, pudgy, heavy-lidded, silver-haired, he was perhaps the party’s shrewdest and most ambitious politician. He now watched the calendar, positioned his allies and prepared his moves. The first step was to lead--or be perceived as leading--the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ (Communist) Party through a series of semantic somersaults that would result in an official redefinition of the 1956 Hungarian revolt against the Communists.

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This revolt was the modern nation’s most heroic and traumatic moment; it left Soviet tanks in the streets, several thousand dead and a purged Communist Party presiding over show trials and executions. Ever since, the party referred to 1956 as a “counterrevolution.” Pozsgay was prepared to announce the formation of a special party historical committee that would consider whether 1956 might be redefined as a “popular insurrection.” On such fine distinctions entire Politburos might rise or fall. There was no way Pozsgay would fail to be out front on this one.

* In Czechoslovakia, the sullen quiet prevailed. Under the equestrian statue of St. Wenceslas, below the filigreed glass-and-gold dome of the national museum, a dozen uniformed police officers strolled about every afternoon in twos or threes, and no one could tell how many more there were milling in the crowds in civilian clothes. It was that way every day, just in case. Prague was buttoned down tight.

* In East Germany, Erich Honecker, 77, with his white hair and grandfatherly spectacles, looked as though the rumors of his ill health had sculpted more flesh from his cheeks, but he sounded as rock-firm as ever in a speech in which he said he saw no reason for dismantling the Berlin Wall--it would stay in place so long as it was useful. In Leipzig, police arrested 11 dissidents for handing out leaflets announcing a demonstration at the town hall. And at the demonstration itself, the police detained more than 100 and charged 12 of the leaders with assaulting the officers.

* In Bulgaria, party chieftain Todor Zhivkov was into his 35th year at the top of the Communist heap, running his clan-based political apparatus like a Mafia don, secure but never careless. His police agents kept dissidents under surveillance, if not under arrest. His major social and diplomatic concern was with the Turks--or rather, as the official jargon had it, the Muslim Bulgarians, for there was no official recognition that any ethnic Turks actually lived in Bulgaria. Returning from one of his 27 holiday rest houses, Zhivkov prepared to receive French President Francois Mitterrand for a state visit.

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* In Romania, preparations were under way for the annual January events--the Ceausescu birthdays--Nicolae and Elena. He was 71. Elena was honored with the nation’s highest award, Hero of the Socialist Republic of Romania. The newspapers gracefully omitted her age, but she could not be far behind. As the Romanians said, where there is death, there is hope. The crueler joke was that he and she, in Romania’s quack health spas and mud baths, might somehow have tapped the secret of immortality.


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