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The Curtain Rises: Eastern Europe, 1989 : OUTLOOK : Revolution of Expectations Braces for the Perilous '90s : The East Bloc must rebuild its economic, political, legal and social systems. And a hard-line backlash is still a threat.


PRAGUE, Czechoslovakia — The big names had finished speaking, the early winter darkness was descending and many people were already drifting homeward from the biggest of a series of massive outdoor demonstrations that would, within days, end 41 years of one-party rule in Czechoslovakia.

So, little notice was taken on that late November day when opposition economist Milos Zeman took the microphone and delivered communism's epitaph.

The last four decades have seen what was previously one of the world's most advanced countries plummet from 22nd to 72nd in the rate of its spending for education, he said. Czechoslovakia now ranks 49th in the percentage of university students among its young people, just ahead of Nepal. And the level of its once impressive technological development has fallen to that of Algeria.

Its people have the second-shortest life expectancy (behind Hungary) among 28 European countries, he continued, and the proportion of its territory devastated by pollution is the worst on the Continent.

In his own way, Zeman was ridiculing the "absurd" argument by the architects of such failure that an anti-government protest strike called for the following Monday would disrupt the economy.

But he could also have been sketching the outlines of the daunting task ahead as East European countries try to secure their breathtaking political gains of the last year and to find their place on a fast-changing Continent.

For all the drama of 1989, the fact remains that the region has barely begun its transformation. "On one level, everything has changed," said Norman Stone, an Oxford University professor of modern history. "On another, nothing has."

What has occurred so far is a revolution of expectations and, to some extent, in the methods of political decision-making. But the changes rest on little foundation except rejection of the postwar past.

The 1990s promise a perilous journey of political, economic and social reconstruction during which the peoples of the region will be hostage to both Soviet and Western good will, neither of which will be unlimited.

And while most now say that they believe the process of change in the region has gone so far as to be irreversible, few expect it to proceed as smoothly as it has to date.

"I find it difficult to believe that somewhere along the line, someone won't try to stop it," commented Norman Davies, a professor of Polish history at London University's School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

Perhaps the biggest question mark surrounds the future of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. His hands-off policy as one Warsaw Pact ally after another rejected Communist Party dictatorship made the democratic gains of 1989 possible. But now those same gains are fueling expectations at home that threaten the very existence of the Soviet Union in its present form.

A possible backlash in Moscow has added to a sense of urgency among those trying to transform Eastern Europe. Some analysts, however, argue that things have already gone so far that, in order to reimpose Soviet control, a new Kremlin leader would have to order the occupation of virtually the entire region--an impractical step even for Moscow's formidable military.

Developments in Eastern Europe may even constitute a Machiavellian form of insurance for Gorbachev, in this view. The reason: Even as they have dumped their Communist leaderships, the democratizing nations of the region have pledged their continuing loyalty to the Warsaw Pact alliance. But if a hard-line alternative to Gorbachev appeared, their turn to the West could become a stampede as they scrambled to distance themselves from Moscow, and abandoned the alliance in the process.

Another major strategic question mark is the future of Germany. Long the pre-eminent economic power on the Continent, West Germany is fast becoming its political pivot as well, with the issue of German reunification suddenly near the top of Europe's agenda. Whatever the outcome of that emotional and complex debate, however, the Federal Republic is already well ahead of the other Western nations in establishing its influence on the other side of the disappearing Cold War divide.

Tactically, the immediate task for the peoples of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Poland is to confirm their commitment to pluralism at the polls.

Hungary's Parliament is expected to dissolve itself this week and to call first truly free, multi-party national elections in two generations for no later than March. Czechoslovakia and East Germany are expected to follow by summer.

Poland, which was the first country in the region to break with its Communist past during partially open parliamentary elections last June, is scheduled to hold free local elections early next year. While less eye-catching than the national polls of its neighbors, Poland's local balloting could be crucial in purging still dangerous pockets of hard-line Communist resistance to change in the provinces.

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