Next Step : After the Elections: Rethinking Eastern Europe : Economic despair has replaced the giddiness of freedom. A collection of untested leaders faces trying issues, times.
Eastern Europe is ready now to look beyond its first democratic elections and prepare to enter the community of nations its people have yearned to join for two generations.
But don’t look for any overnight miracles.
That, at least, is the word from those who ought to know--the men and women now charged with rebuilding societies in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and East Germany. “Yes, things seem to be moving slowly,” said Jadwiga Koralewicz, a social psychologist, a longtime Solidarity ally and now an adviser to the Solidarity leadership in the Polish Parliament. “This is only six months we have been in power. We have just had local government elections.” It is, she asserts, the merest beginning.
“It is going to take us 20 years to catch up,” Koralewicz says. “And this is if nothing happens to interrupt the process. I hope that doesn’t sound pessimistic. To me it is realistic. There are layers of hope, related to the fact that this is a society that is well-educated. And adaptable. And used to dealing with a difficult situation. These are all positive forces. But it is a slow process.”
Western tourists, lured by what seemed the almost magical revolution that swept the region last year, are surging through Eastern Europe for the first time in four decades, many of them naively expecting that the euphoria that wafted over Prague’s Wenceslas Square last November will still be evident, that giddy, freedom-loving Eastern Europeans will be singing folk songs in the streets and lining up for their Big Macs, high-tech running shoes and color-graphics computers.
But the hard truth, as citizens of the region know through experience, is higher prices, frozen wages and a reduction of real incomes ranging from 30% to 50%. The hard truth, for the foreseeable future, is more poor people, higher unemployment.
The hard truth is that the familiar net of social security--a reasonable standard of living for the old and infirm and a guaranteed job for the able-bodied--can no longer be taken for granted.
So what is ahead for Eastern Europe, as it now passes democracy’s first test of free and fair elections? Who are the people who will be guiding the way? And what are the most pressing tasks ahead of them?
Easily the leading priority for Eastern Europe is economic: an antiquated industrial base; the remnants or the still-in-place institutions of central economic planning; stone-age, monopolistic banking practices that stall would-be private entrepreneurs and the huge problem of what to do with the vast, money-losing, state-owned smokestack industries--and the millions of workers now employed in them.
Poland has just gone through what some economic and political analysts fear may be a preview of the year to come. A strike by Polish railway workers protesting low wages and higher costs of living ended May 28 only after the intercession of Solidarity leader Lech Walesa. It was a warning of what could be ahead.
The Solidarity-based government of Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki has taken the boldest course of any Eastern European country in an effort to put Poland on the road to a market economy.
Against the advice of some more cautious economic planners in neighboring countries, Mazowiecki’s finance minister, Leszek Balcerowicz, opted for a radical and painful approach--making the Polish currency, the zloty, convertible and beating inflation to a virtual standstill within months. In order to make the plan stick, it has been vital to the government to avoid the kind of labor unrest and spiraling wage increases that have plagued Communist governments here for years.
In fact, the political movement that the world now knows as Solidarity grew out of just such protests. In effect, what was once a labor union became, as of last August, also the nation’s largest employer. It’s a schizophrenia that raises questions over just who is running Poland, and one that is repeated elsewhere in Eastern Europe--particularly in Czechoslovakia, where the government is based on the anti-Communist popular movement called Civic Forum.
As with Solidarity, Civic Forum found an easy unity in opposition to the old Communist power structure. But now that the Communists are gone, natural divisions are appearing in both former opposition groups.
“Obviously there are philosophical differences in Solidarity,” one Western diplomat said. “Partly it is a left-right or liberal-conservative division, between those who think the government has a responsibility to take care of people, to provide a network of social support, and those who think more along lines I would associate with Ronald Reagan.”
It is also a cleavage between the “technocrats” and “intellectuals,” who now form the clear majority in the Polish government, and the more “political” figures who believe that what Theodore Roosevelt once called the “bully pulpit” of a strong presidency could be used to rally popular support for faster change.
This is where Lech Walesa comes in, with his sights clearly set on the Polish presidency held since last year by former Communist leader Wojciech Jaruzelski.
If the Solidarity leader pursues his ambition--as now seems likely--the divisions between the technocratic intelligentsia and Walesa’s political activists are almost certain to bring the long-anticipated Solidarity split. By early next year, political observers here believe, Jaruzelski could be ready to resign and the battle for the Polish presidency would be well under way.
In Czechoslovakia, which will hold parliamentary elections this weekend, no such battle for the top spot seems likely, as the former dissident playwright Vaclav Havel still rides a wave of overwhelming popularity. And Civic Forum is still well behind Solidarity in the political maturation process: Its history, after all, is much shorter. But divisions over economic policy are evident, with one camp advocating a radical Polish-style approach to reforming the economy and the other taking a more cautious approach.
Since Czechoslovakia has a relatively small national debt and a healthier industrial base than Poland, a more conservative style may be successful. In July, food prices will rise by 25% when the government begins withdrawing state subsidies as part of its general plan of price reforms. It will be the first sharp jolt to consumers since Civic Forum took control last December.
Meanwhile, the Czechoslovaks have seemed preoccupied with other issues, such as sensitive relations between the Czechs and a significant number of Slovaks who are pressing for greater autonomy. Another hot issue: Dismantling the secret police--a pervasive force in the former hard-line governments of the East Bloc whose taming is one of the long, slow tasks of rebuilding faced by new governments throughout the region.
Another long, slow task--one that will make no headlines in the West but is still vital to the creation of a democratic society--is the appointment of new judges and prosecutors and the adoption of new criminal codes.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Joszef Antall, whose party led elections in March and April, heads a government that seems stalled in its infancy.
Although Antall has chosen a Cabinet and unveiled a 100-day program for setting the country on track for a market economy, it is a plan that may be hampered by its own caution. His tandem aims of dissolving monopolies and loss-making factories while preventing a rise in unemployment reflect the widespread Hungarian ambivalence toward the social costs of converting to capitalism.
In the view of some Hungarian observers, the advance-and-retreat approach to the transition could lead to a sense of disappointment after the euphoric events of last year. Along with their neighbors, Hungarians’ first taste of political change has been the bitter pill of a decline in their real incomes. Inflation this year has already topped 30%, and the government predicts still higher prices when it drops further food and fuel price controls later this year.
Despite the problems, Hungarians appear satisfied for the moment with the center-right government they elected. Antall’s party, the Hungarian Democratic Forum, has been given assurance of cooperation from its liberal opposition, the Alliance of Free Democrats, which suggests Antall can count on at least a brief honeymoon.
And the arrangement further suggests that Hungary, unlike its neighbors, already has in place the basis of a workable two-party system (or competing liberal-conservative power blocs) to argue out its political issues.
In Romania, the National Salvation Front’s resounding victory after a campaign stained by violence, intimidation and one-sided domination of the media and other state resources seemed more a reflection of Romania’s totalitarian past than a promise of a democratic future. The country has emerged from half a century of repression deeply scarred and unable to shift social gears as quickly as its neighbors to the north and west. Most observers who have watched the tumultuous events of the last five months since dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was toppled worry that unrest could continue as the National Salvation Front fends off accusations that it is merely taking over the old Communist monopoly on power.
If President Ion Iliescu and his associates are able to ease the political strains brought on by poverty, distrust and ethnic enmity between Romanians and a large Hungarian minority, the country stands a good chance of moving toward economic success. It is rich and fertile. It has virtually no foreign debt.
West European and American business people are anxious to take advantage of low labor costs to expand their operations. All Romania needs is stability.
Bulgaria will close out this round of elections in the former East Bloc with balloting the next two Sundays. Long considered the Kremlin’s most loyal ally, it may well wind up with the dubious distinction of becoming the first nation of the group to freely elect a Communist government.
The opposition has been gaining ground in the campaign’s closing days, but the Communists are expected to retain the largest share of power.
Bulgaria has yet to settle a long-running ethnic conflict with the Turkish minority. It has tried to follow the Soviet model of perestroika, seeking political and democratic reforms before tinkering with the rigid, highly centralized economic structure. These problems are not likely to encourage swift foreign investment, even if the new government launches a program of market economics.
One key country--East Germany--has already been removed from the company of its East Bloc neighbors by the specter of reunification. Before long, Poles will be required to obtain visas to cross the East German border--one tangible sign that the map, political as well as psychological, has changed.
Whatever East Germany’s problems--and they have been, until now, identical to those of its neighbors--they are being absorbed into the problems of the larger country, into West Germany. From the point of view of eastern neighbors, East Germany has already gone. The lifeboat has come.
Apart from outbursts of ethnic unrest, which seem a virtual certainty in Romania and a danger in Bulgaria, and the possibility of labor unrest in Poland, the general feeling among observers in Eastern Europe is that a period of relative quiet is in store for the immediate future.
The process of laying the building blocks of democratic societies, of reforming court systems and banking laws, of cleaning out incompetents from ministries of health and transport, of developing telecommunications systems up to international standards, of finding the money to clean up the awesome pollution that pours forth over the region, of building a sense of participation among ordinary citizens--these are slow and arduous tasks and will not inspire the dizzying headlines that accompanied last year’s revolution.
Among the most important of the coming transformations will be one that will be hardest of all to gauge, one for which there are no clear numerical scales or statisticians’ tools to evaluate.
This has to do with attitudes and psychology, what Solidarity adviser Jadwiga Koralewicz called “the strange dependency” engendered in a socialist society, “where people expected to get something for very little, where people saw no relationship between merit, morality or energy and reward.”
It’s a concern voiced by Lech Walesa as he urges Poles to look for their “own solutions,” to not sit back and wait for the government to make their lives better.
Vaclav Havel diagnosed it in his first speech as president of Czechoslovakia. “All of us have become accustomed to the totalitarian system, accepted it as an unalterable fact of life and therefore kept it running,” he said. “None of us is merely a victim of it because all of us helped create it together.”
In the long run, the creation of a replacement for these unmeasurable attitudes may be the quietest but most important struggle in Eastern Europe’s future.
Seven Steps to Democracy
Multiple parties: Yes
Free elections: Two-stage national elections scheduled June 10 and 17; opposition gaining, but former communists expected to do comparatively well.
Public control over security forces: Security police officially disbanded, though real power unclear.
Legal/Judicial reform: Constitution amended, but not yet rewritten; new basic law considered main job of new parliament.
Independent access to media: Many new publications; seems relatively free.
Economic decentralization: Plans in works, but pace of reform dependent on outcome of elections.
Foreign policy: Efforts to improve past, weak relations with West.
Multiple parties: Yes
Free elections: National parliamentary elections scheduled June 8 and 9. Former communists lag in polls.
Public control over security forces: Secret police disbanded; hunt underway for Soviet KGB spies in Interior Ministry.
Legal/Judicial reform: Rewriting constitution main job of new parliament.
Independent access to media: Government still appoints radio and television chiefs, but media generally independent.
Economic decentralization: Reforms basically on hold pending elections.
Foreign policy: Most active in region; Soviet troops to leave by end of 1991.
Multiple parties: yes.
Free elections: National elections held March 18, 1990; full political reunification with democratic West Germany expected by early next year.
Public control over security forces: Citizens committee presiding over dissolution of secret police apparatus.
Legal/Judicial reform: Constitution being revised to match West Germany’s.
Independent access to media: Many new publications; no problems for journalists.
Economic decentralization: Will be an open market effective July 1 -- date of scheduled economic and monetary union with West Germany.
Foreign policy: Dominated by West Germany.
Multiple parties: Yes
Free elections: National elections held March 25, 1990; Former communists a small minority in parliament.
Public control over security forces: State Security Dept. of Interior Ministry officially disbanded; joined INTERPOL.
Legal/Judicial reform: Constitution amended, but not yet rewritten; work underway.
Independent access to media: A media free-for-all; completely independent, with some Western newspaper ownership.
Economic decentralization: A close second, but more hesitant than Poland.
Foreign policy: Very active; one party advocates leaving Warsaw Pact; Soviet troops to leave by end of 1991.
Multiple parties: Yes
Free elections: Free local elections May 27, 1990; national elections in 1989 only partly free. Former communists still share power.
Public control over security forces: Security police disbanded; replaced by Office of State Protection which seeks closer cooperation with NATO countries.
Legal/Judicial reform: New constitution being written; expected mid-1991.
Independent access to media: Restrictions more economic than anything else.
Economic decentralization: Farthest along; state subsidies almost eliminated.
Foreign policy: Very active, but no move to have Soviet troops withdrawn pending resolution of German unification question.
Multiple parties: Yes
Free elections: National elections held May 20, 1990; former communists still dominate.
Public control over security forces: Securitate theoretically subordinated to army, though actual situation remains unclear.
Legal/Judicial reform: A constitutional committee at work since December revolution; new basic law considered main job of new parliament.
Independent access to media: Many independent publications, but some evidence of government interference and tight central control over television.
Economic decentralization: Some small businesses legalized, but generally reform in very early stage, with government favoring gradual transition.
Foreign policy: Always a maverick, but uncharacteristically inactive since revolution; now on defensive because of leadership’s past communist connections.
Sources: Rand Corp., U. S. State Dept., Committee to Protect Journalists, Plan Econ, Radio Free Europe Research.