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Perestroika Gets Mixed Reviews in East Europe

July 19, 1987|Tad Szulc | Tad Szulc spent the past several months in Eastern Europe on assignment for the National Geographic magazine.

WASHINGTON — If you live in East Berlin, Prague or Bucharest, chances are that you will find it virtually impossible to buy a copy of Pravda, the official organ of the Soviet Communist Party and once a staple, while in the local East German, Czech, Slovak and Romanian newspapers you will find precious little about the words and deeds of Mikhail S. Gorbachev. If, on the other hand, you live in Warsaw, you can now watch Soviet television to your heart's content on your home TV set, via satellite, and you really do not need Pravda to keep up on Moscow news because the Polish press is full of it.

This domestic ideological-political censorship in one instance and "openness" in the other powerfully symbolize today's conflicting sentiments and responses of the five East European communist regimes to the campaign of perestroika (reconstruction) that Gorbachev launched in the Soviet Union 2 1/2 years ago to modernize and--presumably--to rescue the Marxist-Leninist system from ultimate decomposition. It is a fundamentally important phenomenon in the postwar history of the Muscovite empire, reflecting its growing inner crises and struggles.

Thus the East Germans and the Czechoslovak rulers despise the whole idea of Gorbachev's sweeping reforms, though paying it minimal lip service; Romania does not even go through the motions. Conversely, Gorbachev's best friend in the Socialist reform movement is Poland's Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski. The Hungarians, who have been quietly experimenting with economic reform for 20 years--but who nowadays face new basic problems at home--wish the new Soviet ruler well. The Bulgarians, as usual, faithfully follow Moscow's example.

And the tale of communist reform movements is equally fascinating in Asia: Economic reform has been successfully under way for nine years in China, long the Kremlin's rival, and in the last year it has begun to take root in Vietnam.

Finally, reformist Poland has become reformist China's formal gateway into Eastern Europe, following the June visit to Warsaw by Premier Zhao Ziyang; Zhao then went to other Eastern Europe capitals. Jaruzelski was in Beijing last autumn, and it is no secret that the new Polish-Chinese friendship is expected to form a bridge for China's rapprochement with the Soviet Union, now that both nations converge on the reform path.

By any standards, it would be a vast understatement to say that all these responses to Gorbachev's perestroika constitute historical ironies: They do, and few would have believed them possible after the violent liquidation of Solidarity in Poland just 5 1/2 years ago--to say nothing of the rampaging Soviet tanks in East Berlin in 1953, in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. But such are the winds of contemporary political change.

The Polish irony is, of course, the most evident. In December, 1981, acting under immense pressure from Leonid I. Brezhnev, then the top Soviet leader, Jaruzelski in his capacity as premier and first secretary of the Polish Communist Party declared martial law and smashed the Solidarity movement; a Soviet invasion was the alternative.

Five years later, however, not only many of Solidarity's basic reform concepts--such as a rational restructuring of the long-crippled Polish economy and considerable openness in public life and discussion--are accepted features of the Jaruzelski government, but the Soviet regime under Gorbachev supports them totally. What could not be preserved from Solidarity days were truly independent trade unions--though Poland has the greatest degree of de facto political pluralism in the communist world.

The existence of the new Polish experiment, this time supposedly conducted under Communist Party aegis, and its support by Gorbachev stem from a series of realities. One is that Jaruselski could not smash the spirit of Solidarity in the Polish society and he has behaved accordingly through policies that last year culminated in amnesty for all Solidarity-type political prisoners. The other central reality is Gorbachev's assumption of power, his decision to try to reform the inefficient Soviet system, and his consequent understanding of why Jaruselski has to refashion the Polish communist state.

Consequently, Gorbachev and Jaruselski became mutually supportive politically, personally close and ideologically allied within the world communist bloc in terms of the need for fundamental change. This is why Poles can now watch Soviet television to see how perestroika seems to be doing along with glasnost-- the concept of openness--and why top officials on both sides consult about respective domestic problems.

Gorbachev and Jaruselski both face tremendous opposition at home from orthodox factions in the entrenched communist bureaucracies and what the Poles call communist apparatchik "privilegentsia," the corrupt officialdom during changes and purges. And they both are resented and fought in at least three other communist capitals.

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