Eastern Europe Struggles to Shed Vestiges of Soviet Dominance

Article excerpt

THEY used to be dismissed as "puppet states," countries with no mind of their own. Now, in a great irony of history, it is the puppeteer that has exited the world stage, while the ex-Soviet "puppets" of Central and Eastern Europe struggle toward democracy and the promised prosperity of free-market economies.

So far, their road hasn't been an easy one. To varying degrees, all the remaining ex-East Bloc nations have been troubled by nagging political instability. Much of the region remains troubled by high unemployment and paralyzed industrial production.

The region's high hopes of 1989 and '90 have faded. "It will take a full generation before even the Central European nations can be considered secure, stable democracies," predicted J. Brian Atwood, head of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, in a recent speech.

Yet general dissatisfaction with the state of affairs hasn't translated into any nostalgia for the old days of communism. Public-opinion polls show multiparty politics and market economies still have strong support.

By large margins, the people of Eastern Europe "express their overwhelming desire to move forward," said Mr. Atwood.

That doesn't mean they're enjoying the transition. Poland, where political reform began earliest and prices were unfrozen two years ago, is an example.

Voters are apathetic in the country many credit with having sparked the collapse of communism in all its neighbors. Only 42 percent of those eligible cast ballots in last fall's general election.

The Polish parliament is a fractured body of many small parties. With stable coalitions all but impossible, power has been flowing inevitably to the executive - President Lech Walesa.

Even as he feuds with his latest nominee for prime minister, Jan Olszewski, Mr. Walesa is pressing for constitutional changes that would, in effect, allow him to go over a prime minister's head, pick a cabinet himself, and let it rule by decree. In a time of troubles Poland needs decisive government to stick with reforms, he argues.

"Poland may well be an indicator of what may happen in other countries," says Wolfgang Reinicke, a Brookings Institution European specialist.

Bulgaria, for instance, has progressed toward democracy faster than many Western analysts predicted it would. Yet the Bulgarian parliament is largely split between the old Communists, reborn as the Socialist Party, and Union of Democratic Forces reformers. …