Commentary Magazine

Are Things Getting Better in Eastern Europe?

One of the effects of the Polish crisis has been to puncture the notion of Eastern Europe as an island of political stability in an otherwise disorderly world, a view once widely held by academics, foreign-policy specialists, and especially bankers. The belief that the people of Eastern Europe had reached a grudging acceptance both of Communism and of Soviet imperial domination was integral to the intellectual case for the détente policies of the 1970′s. This illusion has been shattered. One might therefore expect a rethinking of our relations with what were once unapologetically referred to as the “captive nations.” Yet no such reassessment of U.S. goals and strategies has taken place, within or outside the Reagan administration. Nor is there a significant probability that one will be initiated in the near future.

True enough, journalists, scholars, and political figures have been overwhelmingly sympathetic to the aspirations of Solidarity, critical of martial law, and dubious of the regime’s claim to have restored political and economic order. The Western media, moreover, largely in response to the Polish crisis, have discovered that the people of Eastern Europe, if not prepared to emulate the Polish example, nevertheless retain a strong contempt for Communism and an intense dislike of the Soviet Union. At the same time, evidence has been accumulating that the promise inherent in “goulash Communism” of an ever-expanding standard of living can no longer be fulfilled. Mounting external debt, increasing energy costs, a reduction in subsidies from the Soviet Union, and the economic problems of Western trading partners have combined with the inherent inefficiency of the Communist system to thwart what has been the Soviet bloc’s major strategy for maintaining political quiescence.

But while today’s image of Eastern Europe differs substantially from that which predominated just a few years ago, the prescriptions for American action remain notably similar to those derived from much more optimistic evaluations of the region’s future prospects. The U.S., it is said, should take no steps which threaten the postwar division of Europe, should remain sensitive to the Soviet Union’s “legitimate” security concerns, should avoid initiatives which East European regimes deem “provocative,” should eschew economic warfare, should keep in mind that our credibility in passing judgment on Soviet behavior is limited by our own transgressions, and should subordinate human-rights concerns to the overriding objectives of peace and disarmament. All of which leads to the inevitable conclusion, whether asserted or implied, that the only remaining viable option is the reinstitution of détente, albeit a more tough-minded détente than that practiced by the Carter administration.

Those proposing the revival of détente habitually pose the issue as between our employing the people of Eastern Europe as cannon fodder in the advancement of an anti-Soviet agenda and a policy of noninterference which, we are told, will indirectly contribute to important liberalizing changes in the Soviet Union’s relations with its satellites. But while admonitions of restraint in our dealings with Eastern Europe may have been appropriate in the immediate aftermath of the 1956 Hungarian revolt, when irresponsible statements by American politicians and broadcasts by Radio Free Europe played a minor role in the tragic events there, they seem hardly relevant today in the Polish context. No one, and certainly not the Reagan administration, can be seriously accused of acting or speaking imprudently about the Polish crisis.

The real issue is not whether American policies will provoke a bloodbath, but whether the emergence of opposition movements or other manifestations of discontent in Eastern Europe should be welcomed and, where possible, assisted; or whether, as was in some part the case with Poland, such developments should be regarded as unfortunate impediments to normal relations with the Soviet Union, roadblocks to East-West trade, and a threat to peace; and, finally, whether a revival of détente would advance the freedom or national sovereignty of the satellites.

Although there are those who will come right out and argue that instability within the Soviet empire contradicts the interests of the West, such straightforwardness is not the general rule. The emphasis, rather, is on the positive benefits of détente to the satellites and, conversely, the damaging effects of a renewed cold war. Seldom, however, do the advocates of détente spell out precisely how their favored policies would lead to domestic liberalization, enhanced independence from the Soviet Union, or both. Even more noteworthy is the failure of those who once confidently predicted that increased trade and cultural relations would contribute to a moderation of Communist repression to evaluate exactly what was achieved during the period when these assumptions played the dominant role in shaping Western policies toward the satellites.

Whether measured by the degree of political rights, by the level of repression against the individual, by freedom of cultural expression, or by the ability of the satellites to implement foreign policies independent of Soviet control, the inescapable reality is that détente failed to meet the expectations of its advocates, and this is true even when taking into consideration the oft-repeated caveat that détente was oversold and its potential exaggerated. In fact, a careful examination of developments within the East European member states of Comecon, the Communist instrument for economic cooperation, reveals that not only was there no reduction in the level of repression and control during the last decade, but that in at least three of these countries (Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Rumania) the degree of individual freedom has markedly declined.




The case of Czechoslovakia is particularly instructive. It was during the flowering of détente—1972-76—that the process of re-Stalinization, inaugurated by the Husák regime immediately after the suppression of the Prague Spring experiment in 1968, was accelerated and became an organic part of Czech domestic politics. The magnitude of the purge is but dimly known in the United States, largely because media accounts focused almost exclusively on reprisals against well-known, dissident intellectuals and officials from the reform-oriented regime of Alexander Dub?ek. In fact, with the single exception of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Czech Communists have carried out the most systematic and thorough “cleansing” of political undesirables in the Communist world since Stalin’s death. In all, an estimated one million Czechs (out of a population of 15 million) have been victimized through imprisonment, expulsion, loss of job, denial of promotion, withdrawal of the “right” to publish or exhibit works of art, and discrimination against children by the educational authorities—the last being a practice especially favored by the Prague hardliners.

Because the reforms of the Prague Spring were largely the result of pressure from liberal-minded members of the Communist party, the subsequent counterrevolution concentrated on errant party members. Over 20 percent of the party membership was expelled, with most suffering economic reprisals as well. The persecution of party members in the educational system was especially notable for its thoroughness; over one-third of those teachers who had been members of the party were expelled, and almost all of those purged were fired. Tenure was abolished in the universities in order to facilitate a housecleaning. Many books were removed from circulation; in some cases, schoolchildren, under the supervision of their teachers, were given the assignment of tearing pages containing politically offensive themes out of books. At the same time as the regime was re-imposing strict censorship, it also ordered the modification of certain lines in classical plays out of a fear that audiences might detect messages of contemporary political significance.

As a supplement to policies which, within a few years, would destroy all vestiges of creative vitality in Czechoslovak culture, the regime launched a campaign to indoctrinate schoolchildren in the precepts of Marxism-Leninism and introduced a heavy dose of military training into the school curriculum. Those in the U.S. who deplore the existence of ROTC programs in the high schools on a purely voluntary basis and cite them as evidence of a predominantly “militaristic” ethos might be interested to learn that in Czechoslovakia (not to mention the Soviet Union and East Germany) children are subject to compulsory military training from the day they enter kindergarten. They are, in addition, forced to endure from the earliest school years a form of ideological “education” that resembles nothing so much as a parody of the worst features of Stalin-era practice.

Another tactic dredged up from the Stalinist past was to encourage children to keep the relevant authorities apprised of political opinions expressed by their teachers, a policy the Nazis also put to good use. In some instances, parents with “healthy cadre records” placed cassette recorders into the briefcases of their children with instructions to record everything the teacher said.

It hardly needs to be added that along with the crude injections of political indoctrination, inculcation of militaristic attitudes, and the use of students as snoopers and spies, the regime initiated a policy of outright discrimination against the children of parents thought to be sympathetic to the goals of the Dub?ek reformers and rank favoritism toward children whose parents were judged to have maintained politically sound views.

Another indication of the determination of the Husák regime to destroy, at whatever cost, all vestiges of the reform era was its dismantling of the reform in economic decision-making instituted by Ota Sik and other liberal economists during the Dub?ek regime. Insofar as recentralization has transformed a once-promising economy into one notable for stagnation and decline, the regime’s policies have been widely interpreted in the West as representing the triumph of doctrine over pragmatism. Yet from the point of view of those who hold sway in Prague, just the reverse is true. To these battle-hardened veterans of the class struggle, policies which in any way reduce the party’s grip over society are immediately suspect as either a departure from Marxist orthodoxy or, more commonly, a threat to the power, status, and even personal safety of the ruling elite. Many have seen Czech developments as an unfortunate deviation from a trend throughout Eastern Europe which had encouraged the rise of a politically moderate, technocratically oriented stratum over the benighted party loyalists. In fact, however, the example of Hungary, often cited as a model of moderate reformism, is no more indicative of current developments, and given the shock waves from Poland, is probably less indicative of future trends, than that of Czechoslovakia.

The Czech developments are also important for what they tell us about the Soviet Union’s attitude toward détente. Especially in Europe, the Husák regime has been the target of considerable opprobrium, much of it emanating from the Left, including the Communist parties of Italy, Spain, and even France. The blatant way in which supporters of reform have been deprived of their livelihoods—a practice the Czechs themselves have admitted—has earned the disapproval of the International Labor Organization, and the whole range of human-rights violations committed by the regime has been regularly criticized at the conferences established to assess compliance with the Helsinki accords. Yet Moscow has done nothing to moderate the policies of the Czech hardliners. Indeed, the Czechs have received only praise from the Kremlin, which seems altogether pleased, world opinion notwithstanding, that its puppets have been so completely successful in excising the reformist infection from Czechoslovak society. And while the disaffection among European leftists is regarded as regrettable, from the Soviet standpoint this loss is more than compensated for by the opportunity to remind other satellite nations of the risks of overstepping the permitted bounds of deviation from the Soviet model, and to warn the West of the consequences of encouraging opposition forces within the “socialist camp.”




If the Czechoslovak experience contains ominous portents for the future of Poland, what can be said of the example of Hungary? General Jaruzelski has already let it be known that he hopes to become Poland’s Janos Kadar—that is, to follow the example of the man installed by the Soviets as party chief in Hungary after the 1956 revolution had been forcibly put down. Kadar has emerged in recent years as the West’s favorite Communist; he is widely (and inaccurately) credited with being the leading figure in the creation of a Hungarian economic “miracle,” and with having instituted internal policies singularly less oppressive than those of other Communist regimes. In the prevailing view, Kadarism consists of an informal social contract whereby the regime eschews overt repression and the people, in return, refrain from challenging the party’s absolute control over political and economic initiatives. In fact, however, the phenomenon of what is known as Hungarian exceptionalism is much exaggerated.

Hungary has fewer political prisoners than other Communist countries (Yugoslavia included); it permits its citizens limited rights to travel abroad; it allows writers, artists, and film-makers more latitude than its neighbors; it has reduced many of the obvious trappings of the police state; and it has sanctioned a moderate level of private initiative in the economy and in agriculture. These changes are not irrelevant, but their significance has been magnified out of perspective by Western observers determined to find something, anything, positive about current conditions in the Communist world.

To begin with, one cannot accurately refer to an economic miracle in Hungary since the Hungarian economy faces a number of serious problems, including a sizable external debt. The extent of the private economic sector has been overstated; larger private sectors exist in such bastions of orthodoxy as Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. Political liberalization exists only insofar as dissenting voices are not punished for expressing unorthodox opinions outside Hungary’s borders; within Hungary, the regime has effectively smothered independent political initiatives. Indeed, an essential aspect of Kadarism is the systematic de-politicization of Hungarian society. If the Hungarian experience contains a lesson for the rest of the Communist world, it may be that Communism is tolerable only when administered along unobtrusive, traditional police-state lines, and when the proletariat and peasantry are encouraged to concentrate on food, alcohol, consumer goods, holidays, opportunities for enrichment—anything but politics.

A further point, and one which also has important implications for Poland’s future prospects, is that Hungary’s present-day moderation was preceded by one of the longest and most ruthless purges in the history of Communist Eastern Europe. Those who participated in or lived through the Hungarian revolution recall the years immediately following 1956 as the time of “Kadar’s terror,” when the man who is today hailed as a paragon of enlightened Communism was reviled as a Quisling and butcher. The full dimensions of the purge will probably never be known, but it is clear that the victims ran into the hundreds of thousands. Official figures place the number of executed freedom fighters at 2,000; unofficial sources believe that a figure many times greater would be accurate. Many thousands were imprisoned, exiled, or turned into non-persons; and at least 50,000 were transported to the Soviet Union, never to return to their native land. The political opposition, which had attained a degree of influence within the Hungarian Communist party unlike anything ever achieved by Solidarity in Poland, was wiped out; and the party itself was decimated, with all but Kadar loyalists eventually purged.

In addition to eliminating from public life all those who might conceivably have provided a measure of political opposition, Kadar (acting, no doubt, on the advice of Yuri Andropov, Soviet ambassador to Hungary and later chief of all satellite relations during the period of the purge), proceeded to break the remaining vestiges of resistance to total Sovietization. For example, the collectivization of agriculture, strongly resisted during the far-from-benign rule of Mátyás Rákosi, was quickly completed under intense pressure from Kadar’s security apparatus.

Kadar was thus able to attain a dominance over Hungary which had eluded his Stalinist predecessors, and he accomplished this in a relatively short time. When, in 1961, Kadar inaugurated a policy of national reconciliation with the formulation “All those who are not against us are with us,” he did so confident that he alone would control the dimensions and pace of change. By eliminating not simply manifestations of opposition, but all potential sources of resistance, the Kadar terror paved the way for the Kadar reforms.




There are hazards in drawing neat parallels between developments in one Eastern European country and past or present trends in another. It would appear, however, from the options available to General Jaruzelski that a Czechoslovak solution is far more likely than a Hungarian one. One year after the 1956 revolt, Hungary was a defeated society; although the Poles may have lost their appetite for strikes and demonstrations, they are clearly not willing to capitulate before the new “realities” created by the military government. Underground Solidarity cells exist in practically every major factory; hundreds of uncensored bulletins, newspapers, and leaflets are published in the major cities; despite the all-pervasive security forces, a network of organizations functions to assist the victims of martial law and coordinate resistance activity. A further indication of popular attitudes is the almost total boycott of the new, government-controlled trade unions established after the banning of Solidarity.

The trade unions, it should be noted, play a crucial role in the regime’s strategy of pacifying the working class. A decision to join the new unions is perceived, by both the leadership and the workers themselves, as signifying at least tacit acceptance of the post-Solidarity order. Refusal to join, on the other hand, can be costly. The unions are empowered to help determine work and vacation schedules, dispense various social-welfare monies, and control factory stores where scarce goods are sold outside the rationing system. In some instances, workers dismissed because of their pro-Solidarity views have been offered back their jobs if they join the new unions and have also been threatened with dismissal for not joining.

The ability of the Solidarity forces to maintain a semi-organized underground structure for over one year after the declaration of martial law (an achievement without precedent in the Communist world) demonstrates that the total eradication of the opposition is beyond the regime’s capacity. A housecleaning of the thoroughness achieved in Hungary by Kadar would require a Soviet invasion and a huge and long-term Soviet military presence, a response which, while certainly possible, seems unlikely, given the high priority of the USSR’s “peace offensive.”

An alternative for the Polish regime would be a decision to reach a genuine compromise with the working class. This too seems highly unlikely, since it would entail a renunciation of the regime’s most cherished long-range objective: a finishing-off, once and for all, of the system of dual power whereby the working class enjoyed a de-facto veto over critical aspects of economic policy. This system of dual power existed even before the emergence of Solidarity, and from the Communist perspective, failure to bring the workers to heel would signify a failure of martial law itself. For the foreseeable future, then, we can anticipate the institutionalization of the repressive policies ushered in with martial law, a development which would amount to a permanent purge similar to Czechoslovakia’s permanent purge of the past fifteen years.

Already the regime has enacted a law calling for the punishment of “habitual work shirkers”—the notorious anti-parasite law which Poland, in contrast to other Communist states, had in the past expressly rejected. By making the refusal to work a crime, anti-parasite laws in other countries have proved an effective weapon for disciplining both workers and dissident intellectuals. Under anti-parasite laws, a worker can be dismissed for his political views, blacklisted by other enterprises, and forced to accept whatever menial job is assigned by the regime or be jailed as a parasite.

Another tactic which has survived the formal ending of martial law is the militarization of factories. Those who work for militarized industries are subject to military law; absenteeism, for example, can be treated as desertion, and punished by imprisonment. Yet another practice favored by the regime is the drafting of dissident and potentially dissident students or workers into the military, and then assigning them to special installations that are little more than concentration camps.

While the techniques devised by the Jaruzelski regime to deal with its rebellious working class have not succeeded in breaking the will to resist, they have enabled the party-state apparatus to reassert its hegemony over Polish society. Herein lies an important lesson which bears on the debate over the continued viability of the totalitarian model: even where the government is corrupt, the party isolated and despised, and the ideology exhausted, an established totalitarian system remains remarkably impervious to challenges from within the society. Indeed, in Poland today Communism means little more than maintaining power through repression. In nearly four decades of rule, Poland’s Communists have never carried out any policy with the efficiency, detailed planning, strategic foresight, and even prudence that were so notable during the imposition of martial law. Had the regime invested one-quarter of the energy and tactical shrewdness in its economic decision-making that it did in the repression of its own people, the rise of Solidarity might have been averted.

This will not be lost on the rest of the Communist world. A principal assumption of détente was that it would promote economic decentralization and efficiency by demonstrating, through increased contacts, the superiority of the market approach. This implied, or at least we were told it implied, a necessary relaxation of state control over the individual. After Poland, however, Communist regimes will be more convinced than ever that total control of the working class is essential to maintaining the political status quo. Confronted with a choice between relaxation of control and improvement in economic performance on the one hand and total control and continued stagnation on the other, the Communists will almost certainly choose the more conservative, and safer, course.

Moreover a careful analysis of the policies adopted in response to the expansion of economic relations would probably show that the Communist strategy of using Western credits to stimulate industrial expansion actually harmed economic efficiency. For one thing, the absurdities of the Communist system prevented the productive absorption of the massive infusion of foreign loans. To the contrary, the credits strategy detracted from the economic discipline—however minimal—which Communist regimes were forced to adopt in order to placate potentially restive consumers.




If Poland demonstrates that the mechanism of totalitarian repression can be quickly and efficiently mobilized by even the most ineffectual Communist regime, the experience of Rumania suggests that a rather brutal form of neo-Stalinism is entirely compatible with a foreign policy relatively independent of the Soviet Union. Under President Nicolae Ceausescu, Rumania has become the only East European country to copy the Soviet practice of imprisoning political dissidents in psychiatric hospitals. Other dissidents have met with fatal “accidents” under suspicious circumstances, while still others have unaccountably vanished. Nor are the Rumanians above killing off troublesome émigrés; in 1972 a plan to assassinate two prominent dissidents living in Paris aborted when the man selected to carry out the murders confessed his mission to the French authorities.

Some argue that Rumania’s harsh domestic policies are the unfortunate but necessary price for Soviet tolerance of its relative independence in foreign affairs. In this view, the Soviets will countenance Rumania’s “nonaligned” stance only as long as Ceausescu abstains from experiments in domestic liberalization. This assumes that Ceausescu genuinely desires liberal reforms, an assumption for which there is no justification whatsoever. Even a cursory examination of the Ceausescu era shows a clear trend toward more repression, more party control over culture, a tighter grip on the working class, and a tougher line with dissidents.

Practically alone among East European leaders, Ceausescu was favorably impressed with the Chinese Cultural Revolution—so much so that in 1971 he launched his own mini-cultural revolution, which is still being carried out today. Like its Chinese model, the Rumanian enterprise has left the nation’s cultural life a desolate wasteland. To give an example: Rumania’s cultural commissars have launched a campaign of denunciation aimed at musicians and composers on the grounds that their music is “elitist” and not suitable for the masses. Some musicians were dispatched, Maoist style, to work in the fields; others had to endure primitively formulated criticisms in the official organs of propaganda. Simultaneously there emerged another campaign to promote a style of music officially described as the “school of lofty sentiment”—amateur music amounting to little more than paeans to the leader and his family.1

As for the working class, Rumania provides further proof that those who claim to rule in the interests of the proletariat inevitably become the vanguard in devising new ways to control and coerce workers. Under a law adopted last year, workers are subject to prison terms for committing such offenses as leaving a machine unattended, leaving work without permission, or failure to leave a machine in safe working condition. The regime has also accelerated the practice of compelling workers in “unproductive” enterprises to accept jobs in what are presumably Rumania’s growth industries. And when, in 1977, 35,000 coal miners from the Tiu Valley struck, over a variety of complaints, the regime responded by simply “transferring” some 4,000 miners to other regions. Two strike leaders subsequently died under mysterious circumstances.

Despite Rumania’s dismal human-rights record and its mounting economic crisis, Ceausescu has been reasonably successful in sustaining its special relationship with the West, a relationship which has provided tangible benefits in the form of trade terms and credits. Ceausescu himself was until recently regularly extolled as a world statesman by presumably intelligent, if ill-informed, Western political leaders. Richard Nixon in his memoirs described the Rumanian as a “strong independent leader,” while Jimmy Carter claimed during his Presidency that Rumania and the U.S. “believe in enhancing human rights” and the “freedom of our people.” Whether these comments were delivered in the hope of encouraging Ceausescu to live up to the image of a statesman or simply out of ignorance, the reality is that Rumania is more unstable and less free today than it was fifteen years ago.

Well before the inauguration of détente, then Senator J. William Fulbright predicted confidently that “ideological barriers could be expected to erode” through increased East-West trade and “human contacts.” In this view, and it is a view widely subscribed to by advocates of détente, the very process of détente can be expected to set in motion an irreversible evolution within the Communist world. Presumably this would be especially true in a country like Rumania, where our relations are relatively uncomplicated by U.S.-Soviet superpower rivalry. Yet despite the fact that we have treated Rumania’s human-rights record much more leniently than we have a number of right-wing regimes that generally support our foreign-policy objectives, the “ideological barriers” have not been lowered.

To interpret Rumania’s internal policies as the unfortunate consequence of the regime’s foreign-policy stance is to ignore the reality of Rumania today. That reality is a system which, after nearly forty years, has failed to win the loyalty of the Rumanian population. The rulers today mistrust the people; the people, in turn, detest both the rulers and the system. Repression continues un-diminished quite simply because it is perceived as in the interests of the party and the leadership. Again, as in Czechoslovakia, policies which to Western observers seem irrational because of their inherent inefficiency represent to the Communists the only option by which to maintain total control. Anything less than total control, as the Polish example suggests, poses a danger to the system itself.




A similar lesson can be drawn from the experience of East Germany. Here it is important to keep in mind that the GDR was not always a showplace of Marxist diligence. At one point in the 1950′s the Soviets were said to be giving serious consideration to withdrawing their troops from Germany and abandoning the Communist regime there. At the time, the idea carried a certain logic. East Germany’s economy was near collapse, its working class had already launched one nationwide uprising, and its talented citizens of all classes were doing what those trapped by Communism always do when given the opportunity—fleeing to the West and freedom. East Germany presented the Soviets with the prospect of a permanent drain on their own scarce resources.

All this changed with the Berlin Wall. At the time of its construction in 1961, the Soviets and East Germans regarded the wall as something of an embarrassment, an “ugly thing” and a “defect.” This apologetic tone has subsequently been jettisoned, as well it might be, since today the wall clearly represents an important step in the consolidation of the Soviet empire. Instead of regarding the wall as a grotesque symbol of Communist failure to achieve popular support and legitimacy, East Germany’s leader, Erich Honecker, refers to it as a “victory for Communism” which strengthened East German society, made possible the GDR’s economic “miracle,” and paved the way for détente. (Appropriately enough, Honecker delivered these observations during a speech at ceremonies to mark the wall’s twentieth anniversary, an occasion otherwise noteworthy for a brazen display of military personnel and hardware.)

From the point of view of the East German Communist regime, every one of Honecker’s claims is valid. Without the wall, Communism might have collapsed; with it, the East German people have had no choice but to accept that the repressive East German system was to be their destiny. The wall further provided the Soviets with the means of demonstrating the “historic irreversibility” of Communism, while offering more evidence to the people of Eastern Europe that, in the crunch, the West will always back down when presented with a determined show of Soviet resolve. In a perverse way, Honecker was also accurate in drawing a connection between the wall and détente. The essence of détente, after all, was not a strategy designed to exploit the weaknesses in the Soviet empire, but rather a coming to terms with the stability of the Communist bloc, a stability to which the wall and the subsequent obliteration of the Prague Spring substantially contributed. Détente, in other words, reflected a Western conviction that future liberation movements were unlikely to emerge in the satellites.




It is of course true that an increase in East-West relations should in theory be more destabilizing to the Communist world than to the democracies. Here the best illustration, ironically enough, is Poland, where the level of political control was relaxed while the regime launched a pell-mell scramble for Western credits and technology. Some have gone so far as to claim that Solidarity and, to an even greater degree, the various opposition groups which predated Solidarity, can be counted as fruits of détente.

There are several problems with this analysis. To begin with, it was the inherent instability of the Communist system which impelled Edward Gierek to adopt the strategy of borrowing huge sums of money from the West in a desperate effort to create a consumer society; this instability also led to a series of riots in 1970 which resulted in more deaths than during the entire period of martial law. Gierek did not make a conscious decision to encourage social liberalization; the liberalization process evolved because of the regime’s weakness. Overt repression was replaced by tactics described as “repressive tolerance.” In any event, the deterioration of the Communist system was not exactly what the advocates of détente had anticipated or hoped for; predictably, influential members of the Western foreign-policy establishment heaped the blame for martial law on Solidarity’s “intemperance.”

Indeed, the reservations over Solidarity, detectable almost from the union’s inception, reveal the fundamental contradiction between the intellectual justifications for détente and détente in practice. On the one hand, détente was to have expanded opportunities for change by providing more “breathing space” for forces committed to liberalization. On the other hand, those who boasted of détente as an agent of change pointedly declined to take advantage of whatever opportunities did present themselves; the “dialogue” they envisioned was limited to an exchange between elites—our businessmen and their trade officials, our elected officials and their “parliamentarians.” Nor were they content with a “guided” détente; they demanded a form of self-censorship by the West, made explicit by Senator Fulbright’s efforts (loudly applauded in the Communist world) to eliminate Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.

At the same time, a combination of détente psychology and revisionist historiography has clearly affected the Western perception of Eastern Europe. A good example of the process of ideological disarmament is our changed perception of the Berlin Wall. No longer is the wall regarded by us as a quite specific symbol of Soviet imperialism, Communist failure, and the tragic fate of millions enslaved by tyranny. Instead, the wall has become a generalized symbol of the cold war. And by cold war is meant not a state of East-West tension provoked primarily by the Soviet subjugation of Eastern Europe, but a senseless and highly dangerous conflict of obscure (and not really relevant) origins for which responsibility is apportioned equally between “the two superpowers.” We no longer emphasize the hideousness of the wall, but the fact that the Communists let a few people out, and this we count a triumph for Ostpolitik. Nor do we have the bad manners to make an issue of the fact that most of those permitted to emigrate by the East Germans are pensioners, people who, to the “materialistic” East Germans, have outlived their usefulness to “socialist” society; nor do we call attention to the practice of West Germany’s “buying” the freedom of those convicted of political offenses (there were 575 such cases during the first half of 1982 alone).

In addition to the widespread misinterpretation of the origins of the cold war, there is a great deal of confusion over developments within the satellites during the cold-war era. The general assumption that periods of East-West hostility invariably foreclose the possibility of change in Soviet-satellite relationships is in fact not borne out by actual experience. To the contrary, it can be argued that more far-reaching changes were introduced in Eastern Europe during the cold war than at any time since the Sovietization of the region. True, the most important contribution to a more civilized atmosphere was the demise of Stalin and the ensuing struggle over his succession. But the dictator’s death was not the only reason for the relaxation of Soviet imperial policy.

There was, for example, the success of Marshal Tito in maintaining power despite the unremitting fury of Stalin. Here it was not so much Tito’s “independent road to socialism” which captured the imagination of other East Europeans as his nationalistic defiance of the imperial giant. But far more significant were the uprisings against Soviet domination in East Germany, Hungary, and Poland. Although the Soviet Union did demonstrate an ability to maintain control throughout the empire, the price was a rather substantial renegotiation of the terms of imperial control, to the benefit of the satellite regimes. Finally, it is worth noting that it was during the cold-war period (assuming the cold war to have ended with the 1963 test-ban treaty) that Albania successfully withdrew from the Soviet bloc and Rumania embarked on its semi-independent course in foreign affairs.

These changes have not, however, altered the basic nature of Communism. Nor have they led to the emergence of a new generation of East European Communist leaders capable of serving as advocates of more nationalistic and liberal policies. In this regard, yet another assumption of détente has been refuted, since it was the expectation of many in the West that a stable political and economic order in Eastern Europe would reinforce the popularity of the leaders of the satellites, thus enabling them effectively to pressure the Soviets for more liberalized relationships within the bloc. The hope was for a generation of Dubceks, only shrewder and more cautious. At different times different Communist leaders have been promoted as the ideal representative of this new type. During the 1960′s Ceausescu was seen as the prototype; later, Edward Gierek was much admired for his reasonableness, pragmatism, and flexibility, even as the Polish economy was collapsing around him.

The most serious flaw in this view is the equation of “nationalistic” with “liberal.” The history of Eastern Europe since World War II suggests that those leaders with the most “nationalistic” orientations are often the most thoroughly opposed to deviations from Communist orthodoxy. It was Wladyslaw Gomulka, widely perceived as an anti-Stalinist reformer, who in Poland put an end to the brief experiment in liberalization in 1956, and it has been Ceausescu who has presided over the re-Stalinization of Rumanian society. There is, in fact, a fundamental problem with the very concept of nationalism when applied to East European Communists. It is certainly true that these men are more sensitive than the Soviets to the customs, internal conditions, and popular sentiments of their respective countries. But it is precisely this awareness which enables them to devise strategies to make Communism more palatable to people who are opposed to the system and to make Soviet domination more acceptable to people who, for good reasons, harbor powerful anti-Russian feelings. They are, in other words, better able to determine what is in the Russians’ best interests than the Russians themselves.

Indeed, it has been the willingness of Stalin’s successors, Khrushchev in particular, to reach accommodations with the Gomulkas and Kadars that has made it possible for the Soviets to solidify their control over their empire, and in less ham-fisted ways than under Stalin. Permitting the Poles to leave agriculture in private hands or the Hungarians to adjust their economic policies costs the Soviets nothing while it secures a measure of social peace in potentially explosive countries. At the same time, the East European leaders themselves have a vested interest in the maintenance of Soviet control over their countries, since it is the presence of the Red Army and the knowledge of Soviet willingness to intervene militarily that provide the ultimate guarantee of their political survival. No one, not even Soviet officials who privately concede that Stalin deserves some of the blame for the cold war, believes that Communism could survive in Eastern Europe under democratic conditions. Indeed, many East European Communists perceive a threat to any part of the Soviet empire as a threat to their own power; thus both Walter Ulbricht, then leader of East Germany, and Gomulka were prominent among those who advocated forcible suppression of the Prague Spring, while Gomulka begged the Kremlin to intervene militarily to put down the 1970 riots.




If the strategies implicit in détente failed either to promote internal liberalization in Eastern Europe or to loosen the Soviet grip over its satellites, what of alternatives? One suggestion is for a major Western initiative to persuade the Soviets to permit a “Finlandization” of Eastern Europe, with offers of trade and mutual force reduction in Europe as inducements. While a free but neutral Eastern Europe would mark a vast improvement for the people of the satellite nations, it is inconceivable that such a formula would be acceptable to the Soviets for the foreseeable future. From the Kremlin’s point of view, the satellites represent much more than a security buffer; they are a validation of the Communist system. It is a principle of Soviet policy, and this principle was made almost explicit in the Brezhnev Doctrine, that the satellites are not merely weaker neighbors over whom the Kremlin exerts hegemony, but de-facto parts of the Soviet Union itself. And as already noted, it is highly unlikely that Communism would survive in these countries if the Soviets were to forswear the use of troops as a means of imposing political control.

A less sweeping proposal is to predicate the reinstitution of détente on Soviet gestures toward a relaxation of control over the satellites. There are two problems here. First, there are many influential forces in the West—our European allies, bankers and businessmen, segments of the foreign-policy establishment—adamantly opposed to any linking of relations with the Soviets to their behavior within their “sphere of influence.” Second, the Soviets themselves have already demonstrated an unwillingness to make even the most symbolic, minimal gesture toward a relaxation of control, even though to have done so might well have strengthened popular support for détente in the West. Given the choice between normal relations with the United States and total control over the satellites, the Soviets will always choose the latter.

But the Kremlin’s present determination to keep the satellites under complete domination does not mean that possibilities for change must be forever written off. One could foresee a combination of events which might convince the Soviets that the cost of empire was too great to bear. The survival of the opposition in Poland more than one year after the imposition of martial law constitutes an unprecedented long-term challenge to the absolute control without which Communism cannot effectively rule. No significant concessions can be expected, however, unless events compel the Soviets to compromise.

Where Eastern Europe is concerned, the issue of freedom is a powerful, destabilizing weapon. Those entrapped by Communism may have grown somewhat cynical at the disparity between the democratic world’s rhetoric of liberty and the reality of our inaction in times of crisis. Yet the free world remains a strong attraction, particularly for the younger generation, and it is a source of much concern to Communist dogmatists that their young people openly flaunt their preference for the democratic West over their own “socialist” system. A Czech propaganda official was no doubt accurate when he recently complained that the “uncritical admiration” for the United States exhibited by young people “cannot be seen as merely political blindness” but rather constitutes “an expression of a certain attitude to life.”

In this regard, it is a serious mistake for the democratic world to forgo the use of sanctions and other forms of non-military reprisal. By themselves, sanctions will not produce dramatic changes in the East European political landscape. But past experience proves that a willingness to invoke punitive measures can serve as a moderating influence on the domestic policies of some Communist countries, as demonstrated most recently by Rumania’s decision to withdraw a punitive tax on prospective emigrants in response to the United States’ having denied Rumania renewal of most-favored-nation trade status. It can, moreover, have an important psychological effect on the people of Eastern Europe. Thus Poles overwhelmingly supported the sanctions imposed by President Reagan in response to martial law, even though they understood that these measures were contributing (however minimally) to the decrepit state of the Polish economy.

There is also the issue of peace. The “unnatural division” of Europe along ideological lines which occurred after World War II is in fact a real threat to peace. Although the West European peace movement condemns this division, it places blame for the “bloc system” equally on the United States and the Soviet Union. In truth, the division of Europe was created solely by the Kremlin’s imposing on the people of Eastern Europe a system which they find intolerable; the result has been a series of regime-shaking and sometimes bloody uprisings. The reality is that Soviet imperialism has led to the only armed conflicts in Europe since the war, and in Poland could yet trigger a tragedy of incalculable consequences.

Those who counsel against changes in the political configuration of Europe make a habit of wrapping themselves in the mantle of realism and peace. But it is precisely the perpetuation of the status quo which insures that real peace will never be achieved. As Milovan Djilas has eloquently observed:

The true political realists in the West and East are only those who refuse to accept tyranny, violence and exploitation, military expansion and political hegemony. Only those who try their best with whatever means they have to help the Polish struggle for independence and freedom are working for the future of Europe and mankind.


1 In yet another reversion to the Stalinist past, the regime has recently imposed drastic restrictions on the ownership of typewriters. Article 15 of the new decree states: “Persons who have a criminal record or whose behavior represents a danger to public order or to the security of the state cannot be authorized to possess typewriters” (emphasis added). The vague wording of this measure is designed to empower the authorities to prohibit the ownership of typewriters to anyone deemed a “security risk.” The decree further calls for the nationwide registration with the local militia of all privately-owned typewriters; the militia is then empowered to determine whether the person can continue to own the typewriter. It is now also illegal to rent or borrow typewriters or to have them repaired in shops other than those authorized by the militia.

About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

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