The spirit of Mikhail Gorbachev’s "Moscow Spring" haunts Eastern Europe. While most people in the region—including members of various opposition groups—welcome the changes made and the changes promised in the Soviet Union, and hope for similar changes in Eastern Europe as well, most leaders worry about the likely repercussions.

After all, it happened before that when Moscow sneezed Eastern Europe caught pneumonia. In the aftermath of the 1956 de-Stalinization campaign in the Soviet Union, reformist elements gained the upper hand in Poland and Hungary. Czechoslovakia’s 1968 "Prague Spring" followed Soviet economic reforms in the mid-1960s. But in no case did these Soviet-inspired changes last long. In 1956 reformism in Hungary turned into a popular revolution that prompted Soviet intervention, while the initial gains of the 1956 "Polish October" gradually disappeared. In 1968, another military intervention—"justified" by the Brezhnev Doctrine—put an end to Czechoslovakia’s economic and political reform movement.

In the past, then, while reforms in the Soviet Union proved to be manageable or even reversible, the pressure for change in Eastern Europe proved to be uncontrollable. Will history repeat itself? Will the winds of Gorbachev’s glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) reach Eastern Europe—and with what consequences?


With East European officials showing signs of aversion to starting Gorbachev-style reforms or accelerating existing ones, most of the region is out of step with the Soviet Union. While in Moscow criticism and self-criticism are in vogue, in East Berlin the party leadership reaffirms its own "correct course," past and present. In Moscow the rehabilitation of Nikolai Bukharin, an early proponent of more tolerant communist rule, is under way; in Prague Alexander Dubcek, leader of the 1968 Prague Spring, remains a nonperson under virtual house arrest. In Moscow the self-management of enterprises is under consideration; in Bucharest President Nicolae Ceausescu asserts that "real socialism" has nothing to do with self-management. In Moscow intellectuals are beginning to be allowed to give voice to their concerns; in Budapest—even in Budapest—the authorities threaten to close down the Writers’ Union for having elected a leadership not to the party’s liking.

True, the Polish and the Hungarian regimes can see in Gorbachev’s initiatives an implicit approval of their own policies and ambitions. Yet even these two regimes, and certainly all the others, except Romania, prefer to praise "promising developments" in the Soviet Union without necessarily seeing them as a guide for their own course or undertaking similar initiatives themselves. Their reluctance to do so stems from three considerations and circumstances.

First, most leaders in the region remain skeptical about Gorbachev’s chances to implement his program in the Soviet Union itself—or, for that matter, to stay in power beyond the 1980s. They tend to assume that his tenure as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) will be short-lived. Even reform-minded officials, those who share Gorbachev’s ideas and root for him, doubt that he can decentralize the Soviet economy, modify the present system of subsidies and alter the artificial pricing system. Privately they stress the inevitable limits—and dangers—of glasnost in a one-party political system, pointing to the recent Chinese campaign against "bourgeois influences" in that country’s intellectual life. They claim that Gorbachev’s support in the Central Committee, even in the Politburo, is quite tenuous; they wonder why the CPSU’s crucial January 27-28, 1987, plenum was postponed several times and why speeches other than Gorbachev’s were not reported in the Soviet press. Some suspect, though they appear not to know for sure, that at least two Politburo members, Andrei Gromyko and Geidar Aliyev, expressed reservations about the pace if not the substance of Gorbachev’s reforms.

Given such skepticism about both the realism of Gorbachev’s program and his staying power, most East European politicians understandably assume a wait-and-see attitude. If Gorbachev has only three to five years to prove himself, why jump on his bandwagon?

Second, domestic political conditions make it very difficult for the East European regimes to emulate the Soviet Union. For while Gorbachev’s momentum in good part derives from his ability to criticize his predecessors’ faults, Eastern Europe’s leaders—with the exception of Poland’s—simply do not have a Leonid Brezhnev or a Konstantin Chernenko to blame for current troubles. After all, not counting General Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland’s leader since 1981, they have held the reins of power for an average of 24 long years! Todor Zhivkov has led Bulgaria since 1954, János Kádár has led Hungary since 1956, Nicolae Ceausescu has led Romania since 1965, Gustáv Husák has led Czechoslovakia since 1969, and Erich Honecker has led East Germany since 1971. Thus, unlike Gorbachev, they cannot gain political momentum and press for change by turning against the record of a previous leadership. On the contrary, in order to protect their professed achievements and their hold on power, they must insist on continuity rather than change.

For the time being, moreover, the coming successions are not likely to make a difference in this respect (except, perhaps, in Czechoslovakia). True, the struggle is already well under way to succeed Bulgaria’s Zhivkov, 76; Hungary’s Kádár, 75; East Germany’s Honecker, 75; Czechoslovakia’s Husák, 74; and Romania’s Ceausescu, 69. But as only Husák appears to be in poor health, the successions elsewhere might not occur for another few years, perhaps not until in the early 1990s.

If so, the contenders for leadership in Eastern Europe face a profound dilemma. To remain viable candidates, they must back their own countries’ official position. Given the Soviet role in Eastern Europe, they must voice support for the Gorbachev program. Yet, to prepare for the future, they must not alienate those in the Kremlin who might replace Gorbachev three or four years from now. Mission impossible, perhaps, but skillful politicians immersed in the intricacies of communist politics are used to performing such balancing acts. What they are doing in fact is paying lip service to Gorbachev’s creativity, affirming the need for socialism to respond pragmatically to new realities, stressing that conditions vary from one socialist country to another—and then dragging their feet. To do less—to oppose Moscow Spring openly—could prematurely end their political careers (except in Romania, where the Soviet party line is anathema). To do more—to turn against the recent past with which they are identified—would alienate both the old guard at home and Gorbachev’s possible successors in Moscow. Hence the better part of political wisdom for East European contenders for power is to do as their seniors do and sit on the fence.

Third, the risk of instability associated with glasnost and even perestroika is much higher in Eastern Europe than in the Soviet Union. The Soviet system appears to enjoy considerable domestic support, especially among ethnic Russians; the same cannot be said about any of the East European systems. Forty years of communist rule have not perceptibly improved the standing of the East European leaders with the vast majority of their people, young and old, who continue to dream of a European—perhaps an Austrian or Finnish—future. Hence, almost irrespective of what they do, the communist leaders of Eastern Europe always walk on thin political ice.

Popular sentiments being what they are, any reform in Eastern Europe carries with it the risk of being, and being seen as, too little and too late—fueling spontaneous demands for fundamental change. If the region’s communist regimes were to open the valves of liberalization, people would press for liberty; if democratization were in vogue, they would ask for democracy. If these regimes were to pursue perestroika but resist glasnost—modify the economy without tolerating a more open political environment—the people would call for political pluralism. Indeed, any change introduced by the region’s authorities would generate demands for more—more democracy, more independence, more consumer goods, higher living standards. This is why the East European regimes are so reluctant to adopt Gorbachev’s program; they know that in their part of the world any change, especially the type of rapid and radical change Gorbachev is proposing, carries with it the danger of political turbulence.


With the exception of Romania, all East European members of the Warsaw Pact have nonetheless endorsed the new party line emanating from Moscow. In descending order of sincerity, the leaders of Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and even East Germany have spoken in favor of what the CPSU is doing. Jaruzelski has been especially full of praise for Gorbachev, stating that the Soviet leader’s "energy, courage, and farsightedness deserve our deep respect and honest Polish sympathy." Of course, given their dependence on Moscow, it is hardly surprising to see the East European regimes approving of Soviet internal developments.

Yet on the issue of what to do at home, there is general uncertainty about, and a marked reluctance to emulate, the Soviet example. Within that general pattern, circumstances and intentions vary—ranging from explicit resistance to any reform (Romania), to polite evasion (East Germany), to pledges of initiating economic but not necessarily political changes (Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia), to serious but vague talk about continuing reformist policies already under way (Hungary and Poland).

In Romania, with Ceausescu at the helm, there is no interest in either perestroika or glasnost. The Romanian press has all but ignored Gorbachev’s January speech to the CPSU Central Committee; the party newspaper Scînteia printed only a brief, innocuous summary, after a three-day delay. (With a straight face, the paper’s foreign editor explained to me that the delay was due to the difficulty of translating the Russian text into Romanian.)

In a speech delivered at his own 69th birthday party, Ceausescu even raised the question of Gorbachev’s adherence to "the invincible principles of scientific socialism." Alluding to the CPSU’s new platform, he said that a truly revolutionary party would not "let enterprises or economic sectors manage themselves" and thus abdicate its obligations to society. "Self-management and revolutionary democracy," he declared, "are inconceivable without the leading role of the Party as . . . the vital center from which all creative energies" should originate. Ceausescu also ridiculed the idea of "improving socialism by developing so-called small private property. Capitalist property is capitalist property, be it small or large." By so dissociating Romania from Gorbachev’s path, Ceausescu has thus signaled both his contempt for what the Soviet Union is doing and his unequivocal opposition to emulating the new Soviet model. Accordingly, chances for Ceausescu’s maverick Romania to return to the Soviet fold have further decreased since Gorbachev’s ascension to power. This is so despite the dramatic expansion of trade between the two countries since 1984, which reflects Ceausescu’s determination to eliminate Romania’s hard-currency debt.

East Germany’s position is more subtle. With Honecker uncharacteristically quiet, little has been said about the CPSU’s January plenum; that which has been said amounts to muted, skeptical endorsement. Typically, East German officials express agreement with the Soviet Union, support its policy of seeking to raise "the Soviet people’s material and cultural living standards"—and deny Western "suspicions of the existence of differences and nuances" between Moscow and East Berlin.

The same officials do not deny East Germany’s reluctance to adopt Gorbachev’s policies. They claim that since their "streamlined" economy is performing well and since conditions in the two countries differ, further changes are both untimely and unnecessary. As to glasnost, there are no plans to link gradual economic improvements to political change; officials privately reject the Soviet argument for an inherent link between economic reform and political liberalization. However, because the 1983-84 tug-of-war over intermediate-range nuclear forces, European détente and intra-German relations has given way to an apparent identity of views on critical foreign policy issues, relations between Honecker’s East Germany and Gorbachev’s Soviet Union are still reasonably harmonious.

Bulgaria leads the pack in offering daily commentaries about Gorbachev’s "historic" economic proposals and their relevance for Bulgaria. In one speech after another, Zhivkov has gone out of his way to praise perestroika—though he barely mentions glasnost. While claiming that the Bulgarian Communist Party has followed a correct course since its April 1956 plenum (the first party gathering he dominated) and that the country has since caught up with the industrialized world, Zhivkov still insists on the adoption of literally hundreds of new economic measures. In his own words: "We can and must transform our already-transformed Bulgaria."

Thus, unlike Gorbachev, Zhivkov offers no criticism of the past. There is no talk of reassessing Bulgaria’s treatment of its large Turkish minority or of improving relations with Yugoslavia. Nor is there any indication of a political or cultural thaw. However, Zhivkov’s rhetoric is full of plans for economic restructuring, decentralization, self-management, increased independence for the country’s industrial plants, agricultural units and banks, "new types of management structures," income differentiation to reward hard work, closure of inefficient enterprises, construction of small- and medium-sized factories, and the like. How much of this ambitious rhetoric will, or can, be implemented remains to be seen. But Zhivkov’s advanced age and his unwillingness to address political issues make it unlikely that Gorbachev’s Moscow Spring could take hold in Sofia.

Clearly, Czechoslovakia is the country to watch; it is the test case of Gorbachev’s impact on Eastern Europe. Having waged war against reformism for almost two decades, the Czechoslovak regime is particularly vulnerable to the winds of reform emanating from Moscow.

Prior to World War II, Czechoslovakia was one of the six or seven most highly advanced, industrialized countries in the world and a cultural mecca in the heart of Europe—with its capital situated, of course, to the west of Vienna. Since the 1948 communist takeover, Czechoslovakia’s decline has been gradual but palpable. Statistics show that the economy is still stagnating: between 1981 and 1985 the average annual growth rate was 1.5 percent—the lowest in several decades. As to the prevailing atmosphere in the country, one interlocutor called his homeland a vast political cemetery.

There is no adequate explanation why Husák, himself a victim of Stalinist purges in the 1950s, has allowed Czechoslovakia’s economy to slide and its polity to degenerate. According to one theory, this erstwhile cautious supporter of Dubcek’s Prague Spring has felt compelled to compensate for his reformist inclinations. A corollary to this theory is that Husák has been no more than a figurehead all these years, with real power held by Central Committee Secretary Vasil Bilák, a man with neo-Stalinist views who had close ties to Brezhnev. Be that as it may, certain Czechoslovak policies in the 1970s were even more conservative and rigid than those pursued by Brezhnev. Today, Czechoslovakia is an anachronism in Gorbachev’s world of reform and renewal. That is why people in Prague hope that Gorbachev’s Moscow Spring, whose origins they often trace to Dubcek’s Prague Spring, will produce beneficial changes in Czechoslovakia. This time, they add, they would welcome Moscow’s "fraternal assistance."

Since the very end of 1986 and especially since March of 1987, the more pragmatic faction in the Czechoslovak leadership has begun to take advantage of Soviet developments to press for corresponding changes at home. Led by Prime Minister Lubomír Štrougal, the pragmatists favor implementation of economic proposals advocated by reformers in 1966-67. Although Štrougal has carefully dissociated himself from the "absurd" political demands that subsequently accompanied the economic proposals of two decades ago, and although he has carefully shied away from upholding glasnost, his positive references to the pre-1968 era of experimentation constitute a powerful challenge to a regime so deeply afraid of and hence opposed to change.

Speaking for the orthodox faction, Bilák responded by acknowledging the need for new policies that demonstrate "the strengths and advantages of socialism." But in a speech made after the CPSU’s January plenum, Bilák still warned against the "opportunistic" emulation of Gorbachev’s programs, stressing the lessons of the "struggle against the enemies of socialism in the 1960s." He called attention to a resolution, adopted by the Czechoslovak Central Committee in December 1970, that defined the country’s harsh course since the 1968 Soviet intervention. "There are those," said Bilák, "who would like to have that document nullified, but this will not be done." Clearly, he was alluding to Štrougal and his pragmatic supporters. Clearly, the fight is on.

Alas, the issue is not about the reinstatement of Dubcek or the rehabilitation of Prague Spring. This generation of Czechoslovak leaders—even its pragmatic wing—seems unable to undo the policies of the recent past. What is at issue is the choice between policies that would approximate those presently favored by the Soviet Union and policies that are even more conservative than Brezhnev’s. Given the orthodoxy that has characterized Czechoslovakia for almost two decades, this is a momentous choice. No wonder the leadership is so divided; no wonder Husák shows signs of fatigue.

Even before Gorbachev’s visit to Prague this spring, Husák conceded that the January plenum of the CPSU had sparked "an extraordinary response throughout our Party and among the Czechoslovak people" and that party members were raising questions about "what we in Czechoslovakia will do." He denied that anyone "is forcing the CPSU Central Committee’s conclusions on us" and dismissed as hostile propaganda "fabrications about differences of opinion" within the Czechoslovak Communist Party and between Prague and Moscow. Having learned to read between the lines, Czechs and Slovaks—and other East Europeans—quickly drew the opposite conclusion, assuming both a divisive struggle between party factions and considerable pressure by Moscow as well.

Given Husák’s age and ill health, the struggle for power also involves his possible replacement. The most likely scenario is that Husák will keep the ceremonial post of president but Štrougal or one of his like-minded allies will take his place as party leader. In that case, Czechoslovakia will at long last experience perestroika with a pinch of glasnost, although factional disputes would no doubt continue. Another possibility is that Husák will stay on and that there will be only a modicum of perestroika without even a pinch of glasnost. In that case, with the succession postponed, the paralyzing factional struggle will only intensify. In either event, then, long-delayed reforms are about to exact their price.

Hungary’s reaction to Gorbachev is a function of János Kádár’s legendary circumspection and growing conservatism.

At 75, Kádár is not the reformer he used to be. New ideas in general, and the reform of Hungary’s New Economic Mechanism (NEM) in particular, no longer appeal to him. Because living standards in the country have eroded during the 1980s, his personal popularity, still impressive by East European standards, has declined. For the first time in memory his performance is openly criticized at low-level party meetings. While the old guard in the Politburo remains loyal to him, party officials in their forties and fifties—who are tired of Kádár’s excessive preoccupation with the past, notably with "1956," and with his inability to offer a convincing plan for the future—have come to complain about stagnation and immobility. Unfairly, perhaps, they identify "Uncle Kádár" with Brezhnev in his declining years. They would like Kádár to move on, accept a ceremonial post, and allow the younger generation in the party to decide which way to go: whether only to consolidate the gains made under NEM or to introduce new, moderate reforms.

In a development that is unique in Eastern Europe, however, a popular Central Committee member, Imre Pozsgay, has voiced Gorbachev-style attacks on the recent past and come out openly for truly radical changes. Not without supporters in the party apparatus, he is campaigning vigorously for a thorough implementation of both perestroika and glasnost in Hungary. Defying Kádár and the old-timers, he is the only known East European communist politician to have taken Moscow Spring at face value. Pozsgay, at 53, is secretary general of the once dormant and still quite insignificant Patriotic People’s Front, a communist-controlled mass organization encompassing most organized groups and associations in the country. Although he clearly lacks similar influence, Pozsgay is seen in Budapest as Hungary’s Gorbachev.

The front’s recently completed, 60-plus page study, "Change and Reform," prepared by some of Hungary’s leading economists and sociologists, is an unsparing call for a new beginning. Its point of departure is the demand for public self-criticism by the present leadership, which is urged to acknowledge its responsibility for decisions that have brought the country to "the brink of catastrophe." Unpublished but widely circulated and packed with highly technical recommendations, the report also asks for a shift toward closer association with the Common Market and hence reduced reliance on the Soviet bloc’s Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA); personnel changes at the top; a market-based reform of industries that NEM has left largely untouched; and new institutional mechanisms so that the party would only guide—while other, unspecified organizations would run—the country’s economic and political affairs.

There are at least two reasons why Kádár and the older members of the Hungarian Politburo will likely reject these recommendations. One is that the study sponsored by Pozsgay would take the country on an uncharted course well ahead of all others in the bloc. After all, Hungary already has the most reformed economy in Eastern Europe and it has even pioneered the idea of multislate elections that Gorbachev has promised to adopt. The other reason is that such striking proposals as the intended reduction of Hungary’s reliance on CMEA so obviously run counter to Gorbachev’s policies as to create certain conflict with Moscow, something Kádár has skillfully avoided over the years.

Indeed, Kádár is known to consider rapid change à la Gorbachev to be dangerous in Soviet-type systems. This February, for example, he authorized Central Committee Secretary Mátyás Szürös to make a favorable if carefully calibrated statement about the Gorbachev phenomenon and its positive implications for Hungary, but he has said very little himself. An astute observer of the Soviet scene, Kádár is apparently waiting for additional confirmation of Gorbachev’s staying power. Meanwhile, as the country wanders aimlessly, Hungary’s sagacious patriarch—a brilliant chess player in his youth—contemplates his next move. One possibility is that he will offer to quit while he is ahead, thus becoming again the pioneer among communist leaders that he once was.

Poland’s General Jaruzelski is widely seen as the main East European beneficiary of Gorbachev’s program. Moscow’s once grudging approval of Jaruzelski’s relatively moderate course has turned into enthusiastic support. The prominent Soviet weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta published a long interview with Józef Cardinal Glemp this year. Indeed, the Soviet press no longer questions Jaruzelski’s courting of the Catholic Church, the open discussion of controversial issues in Polish newspapers or the absence of severe punishment for leaders of the opposition.

Gorbachev went to Warsaw last year to give the general the kind of warm—almost unconditional—endorsement Soviet leaders seldom deliver. Since then Gorbachev’s gesture has been translated into Soviet policy, giving Jaruzelski the green light to do what he deems necessary to make Poland a stable member of the Soviet bloc. He is free not only to introduce major economic reforms but to experiment with new forms of political participation, called "socialist pluralism." This is why the general, who at 64 is closest in age to Gorbachev among the region’s present leaders, can welcome the same "historic current of change" in the two countries. "Poland has not experienced such a happy convergence for the whole of the past millennium," he declared earlier this year.

Still, despite the favorable eastern winds helping the Polish regime, what can Jaruzelski do? There is already much more glasnost in Poland than in the Soviet Union. For several years now, the proprietors of power in Warsaw have closed their eyes to the publication of uncensored and illegal books and periodicals, some of which appear regularly and enjoy wide circulation. The Catholic Church is an acknowledged and not totally unwelcome pillar of the Polish establishment, opposition leaders speak their minds to Western reporters and visitors, most everybody can travel to the West, and the country’s company unions make an occasional effort to represent the workers’ interests. The problem for Jaruzelski is that in Poland rights that are given rather than guaranteed may be appreciated—but do not suffice. Poles do not even like to be reminded of the authorities’ relative moderation. During my recent visit, high school students told me bluntly, "You’ll see, the next time around we’ll hang them."

As for perestroika, Gorbachev’s green light can help Jaruzelski overcome bureaucratic resistance to economic reforms. Yet, while the general has promised "a critical mass of reforms," it is not clear how far he is prepared to go. It is one thing to demand discipline, as he has done, or even to raise prices and introduce other austerity measures to accommodate potential Western creditors; it is something else to let domestic and foreign markets guide a decentralized Polish economy toward flexibility and efficiency. Jaruzelski’s main problem is the absence of sufficient public support at home to undertake such systemic reforms. The public is in no mood to support what the regime regards as the necessary economic sacrifices, without the regime undertaking what the public regards as the necessary political sacrifices. Hence the key to economic change is political change; the key to political change is Lech Walesa, the electrician in Gdansk, leader of the outlawed Solidarity labor union. If Gorbachev could bring Andrei Sakharov from Gorki to Moscow, might not Jaruzelski yet bring Walesa from Gdansk to Warsaw?


Eastern Europe presents even greater problems for Gorbachev than it did for his predecessors.

He has of course inherited the old dilemmas: how to make this volatile and fervently nationalist region stable without tolerating genuine autonomy; how to permit movement toward autonomy and hence stability without losing control. No Soviet leader has found a magic formula to reconcile such incompatible goals; regional stability and bloc cohesion do not come together in Eastern Europe. The problem is not only that the region’s people resent the Soviet presence and object to the political and economic systems imposed on them. The East European communist regimes have found that, much as they depend on Moscow for political survival, their chance to gain a modicum of domestic authority depends on the distance they manage to keep from Moscow. While they cannot rule without Moscow, they also cannot govern by strongly identifying with it.

To help the Soviet Union’s dependencies govern, Gorbachev’s predecessors had allowed for considerable diversity to develop among East European countries. Today even casual travelers can tell—can almost feel—the difference in atmosphere between Warsaw and Budapest on the one hand and Bucharest, Prague, East Berlin and Sofia on the other. The difference goes beyond one regime’s willingness to let its citizens travel and another’s refusal to do so, or one regime’s reluctance to punish people for their opinions and another’s heavy reliance on coercion.

The economic systems of the region have become markedly different too, both in terms of performance and structure. The East German or Hungarian standard of living is about twice as high as Bulgaria’s or Romania’s, and the average East European standard of living is at least a third higher than the Soviet Union’s. As for structure, Gorbachev’s proposed rearrangement of the Soviet economy has been surpassed by economic experiments long practiced in Hungary, Poland, East Germany and Bulgaria. Under their circumstances, Soviet perestroika is but a very modest and limited beginning—just as Soviet glasnost is no more than that for Poland and Hungary.

Hence the new problem Gorbachev is facing has to do with the truly radical next steps Moscow Spring is generating in Eastern Europe. Because some of these countries have already gone far beyond his perestroika or glasnost or both, their next steps under their circumstances would have to take them beyond anything Gorbachev has in mind for the Soviet Union. If the logic and spirit of Moscow Spring were applied to Polish circumstances, for example, the next step there would be the formation of an independent labor union led by Lech Walesa. If the logic and spirit of Moscow Spring were applied to Hungarian circumstances, the next step there—given Hungary’s foreign-trade dependence—would be the reorientation of that country’s foreign trade toward association with the Common Market and a correspondingly reduced relationship with the Soviet-sponsored CMEA. If the logic and spirit of Moscow Spring were applied to Czechoslovak circumstances, the next step there would be the wholesale removal of that country’s Brezhnevite leadership and its replacement by the likes of Dubcek.

By Soviet standards, these "next steps" are at least disconcerting, perhaps heretical; fear of what would follow them is obsessive. Like his predecessors, Gorbachev has made it clear that "sovereign solutions" in Eastern Europe must be understood in the context of the bloc’s "common interests." The Brezhnev Doctrine is still on the books. Gorbachev’s rhetoric is less ominous and his readiness to use force against perceived threats to allied socialist regimes is less apparent, but the Kremlin remains a vigilant judge of what is and is not permissible in Eastern Europe.

In 1985, for example, Gorbachev was reported to have warned East European leaders against "resorting to market mechanisms in place of direct planning." I was told that, in the summer of 1986, at an unpublicized meeting with a small group of Hungarian party officials and economists in Budapest, he spoke in the same vein. Referring to unnamed Soviet economists but alluding to radical Hungarian reformers, Gorbachev was said to have firmly (if politely) rejected proposals that would gradually lead Soviet-type economies toward capitalist solutions. In a speech delivered in Warsaw in June 1986, he publicly assigned "absolute priority . . . to cooperative links between fraternal countries," although he added that integration within CMEA was "not, of course, a matter of limiting economic contacts with the West."

Since last fall, however, the Soviet position toward East European innovations has become slightly more open-minded, a tendency reflected in key personnel changes in the Soviet hierarchy. The new Central Committee secretary in charge of the Socialist Countries Department, Vadim Medvedev, himself a respected economist and academician, replaced his deputy, Oleg Rakhmanin, a notorious critic of Hungarian-type reforms, with Georgi Shakhnazarov, a political theorist known for his advocacy of self-management years before Gorbachev made that concept part of his program. That was welcome news for East European reformers and a blow to the likes of Czechoslovakia’s Vasil Bilák. In the Central Committee department that deals with international propaganda, the promotion of Nikolai Shishlin, a veteran foreign-affairs commentator and East European specialist, is seen as another good sign given Shishlin’s public stance against Rakhmanin’s views in recent years.

More importantly, Gorbachev is now telling his aging East European comrades to reevaluate the past and make socialism work. He is not insisting that they copy the new Soviet path. But he is not letting them close their eyes to what he has begun to do in the Soviet Union. In a hurry to get the Soviet economy on its feet, Gorbachev seeks a more tolerant political environment in Eastern Europe—especially in Czechoslovakia, Moscow’s second largest trading partner—so that, in an atmosphere of glasnost, the region’s improved economies could produce high-quality products for all members of CMEA, including the Soviet Union. Committed to the cause of socialism, he understands that only workers—presumably Polish workers, too—could help him prove that socialist democracy is superior to capitalist democracy. Eager to advance Soviet foreign policy interests, he intimates that only a less heavy-handed Soviet approach to Eastern Europe could reap lasting gains for Moscow in Western Europe.

Thus, guided by what is good for the Soviet economy, the cause of socialism and Soviet objectives abroad, Gorbachev recently affirmed as "firm principles for us" the "independence of every [East European Communist] Party, its responsibility to its people, and its right to decide in a sovereign manner how the country should develop." He also told a Czechoslovak party gathering in Prague, of all places, that the "frank admission of oversights and blunders and the resolve to repair them [can] only strengthen the prestige of socialism. . . . Minor repairs will not be enough. Overhauling is in order." For those unwilling to get the message, Soviet spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov clarified the difference between Gorbachev’s Moscow Spring and Dubcek’s Prague Spring in two memorable words: "Nineteen years."


Is Gorbachev prepared, then, to allow East Europeans to take a few of those radical "next steps" their circumstances call for?

When another major crisis erupts in the region, almost anything—including a negotiated settlement, or what Moscow calls a "political solution"—is possible. Meanwhile, in the absence of such a crisis, the clue to Gorbachev’s intentions vis-à-vis Eastern Europe is to be found in his priorities for the U.S.S.R. Simply put, he wants the Soviet Union to become an economic and political, rather than a purely military, superpower, and for Soviet-style socialism to become an appealing alternative to countries and peoples everywhere. To achieve these goals, he wants to do away with the economic burden, ideological embarrassment and foreign-policy handicap Eastern Europe has come to be for the Soviet Union.

In the economic realm, according to the Soviet version of the story, the issue is equity. More than half of total Soviet trade is with the CMEA countries, much of it with East Germany and Czechoslovakia. As seen from Moscow, the Soviet Union does not derive sufficient benefits from this relationship. Officials complain that the East Europeans tend to dump shabby goods on the Soviet market, saving superior products for Western Europe and other hard-currency areas. Other complaints are that the East Europeans almost never deliver on time and that they often fail to pay promptly or in hard currency.

Given the volume and significance of CMEA trade, Moscow has protested bitterly over the years—with no apparent results. Because its vital interests in the region’s stability are at stake, the Soviet Union cannot afford to apply harsh countermeasures. Should it slow down the transmission of electricity and cause a blackout in East Berlin, for example? Replace hard-pressed East European leaders, and thereby court political turmoil? Send in troops in retaliation for the late delivery of, say, Bulgarian peas or Hungarian buses? As long as the Soviet Union assumes responsibility for the region’s stability, it can at best press but cannot compel its allies to make timely and effective contributions to the Soviet economy. It is a "Catch-22" situation for Gorbachev, as it was for his predecessors.

In the ideological realm, the issue is the erosion of common standards. True, Soviet leaders from Stalin to Gorbachev have paid lip service to the concept of "different roads to socialism." True too, even Stalin tolerated a modicum of diversity in Eastern Europe. But in view of the role of private enterprise in East Germany, Poland and Hungary, in view of the important—the leading—role of the Catholic Church in Poland, in view of Bulgaria’s reported aspiration to become "the Japan of the Balkans" rather than the Russia of the Balkans, in view of the impact of Western life-styles and culture on the youth of Eastern Europe, in view of all that and more, what remains of the still-professed universality of Marxism-Leninism and of the shining example of the Soviet Union?

Problems of ideology in the communist world are frequently dismissed in the West as all but irrelevant. Not so for Moscow; certainly not so for Gorbachev. The erosion of common ideological standards in the bloc is at least an acute embarrassment. If even its allies shy away from accepting the Soviet belief-system and refuse to emulate the Soviet example, where else will the U.S.S.R. find peoples and countries that will voluntarily opt for and remain committed to Soviet ideals, patterns and practices? Ethiopia, South Yemen and especially Nicaragua should not be lightly dismissed, but if Gorbachev is to make Soviet-style socialism attractive to people in Western Europe, he should first make it attractive in Eastern Europe.

In the realm of foreign policy, the issue is the impact of Soviet policies in Eastern Europe on the effectiveness of Soviet policies elsewhere, particularly toward the West. Gorbachev’s problem is that heavy-handed Soviet behavior in Eastern Europe invariably tempers Western interest in détente.

For, as W. W. Rostow has recently reaffirmed, Soviet policy in Eastern Europe is still a key measure of ultimate Soviet intentions. In the Western view, the cold war began in Eastern Europe and that is where détente should reveal its substance. Arms control aside, the West is not—and should not be—prepared to hide its skepticism about Gorbachev’s ambitious calls for genuine, lasting and across-the-board détente while the Brezhnev Doctrine is still in force. Thus, as a reminder of the reality of the cold war, Eastern Europe remains a major stumbling block for Gorbachev in his search for a new beginning with the West.

What can Gorbachev tolerate in his backyard then? To the extent such distinctions can be made, Moscow’s economic needs and especially ideological preferences argue for a more cohesive alliance, while its foreign policy goals point to the benefits of a more autonomous Eastern Europe. Under the circumstances, Gorbachev can allow for far less autonomy than his allies need; and hence they, in turn, can aid his domestic priorities and facilitate his policy of détente far less than he wants them to. He cannot begin to end the cold war by transforming Eastern Europe from a Soviet sphere of control and domination into a Soviet sphere of influence. He cannot permit Eastern Europe to combine membership in Soviet-led military and economic alliances with internal and even considerable external independence—the way another East European country, Greece, has come to relate to the West.


To conclude that Gorbachev cannot accept a "Greek solution" for Eastern Europe is not the same as dismissing his potential for shaping a different and better political and economic order in the Soviet domain. After all, much of what he seeks to do derives from the reformist tradition of Eastern Europe. Gerasimov’s words are worth repeating: only nineteen years separate Moscow Spring from Prague Spring. Indeed, Gorbachev identifies with Kádár’s policy of valuing nonparty talent ("he who is not against us is with us"), approves Jaruzelski’s (grudging) tolerance of a critical press, agrees with Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas’ abhorrence of the "new class" of communist bureaucrats and even shares Dubcek’s dream of "socialism with a human face." Gorbachev has resumed the process of de-Stalinization begun by that other onetime reformer, Nikita Khrushchev.

It would be a supreme irony if this ambitious student of East European reformers were to lose his battle for the restructuring and liberalization of communism not in the Soviet Union but in Eastern Europe. Yet, this possibility should not be discounted; Moscow Spring cannot be insulated from the Prague Springs of the future. Hence, without steps toward eventually finding a "Greek solution" for Eastern Europe, Gorbachev’s attempt to reconcile communism with glasnost might begin to unravel in Warsaw, Budapest or Prague rather than in Moscow.

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  • Charles Gati, Professor of Political Science at Union College, is also associated with the Research Institute on International Change and the Harriman Institute for Advanced Study of the Soviet Union at Columbia University. His latest book, Hungary and the Soviet Bloc, was published in 1986 by Duke University Press. He visited six East European countries in January and February 1987.
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