Glasnost's waves send Eastern Europe into a dither


WARSAW -- Like dandelions after a warm spring, glasnost sprouted in unpredictable ways in Eastern Europe in 1987, uprooting the artificial image of comradeliness and unity within the Warsaw Pact.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's call for glasnost, or openness, led to a long list of firsts, including the first genuine parliamentary debate in a communist system (Hungary) and the first case of a communist government losing a vote (over stepped-up economic reform in Poland).


Other examples that would have been unthinkable even a year ago:

-Acknowledgement of a border dispute between East Germany and Poland and of 'blank spots' in the official history of Poland and the Soviet Union that have been kept hidden for 40 years.

-A public airing last spring of the festering dispute between Hungary and Romania over treatment of nearly 2 million ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania.

-Unrelenting media coverage by the Yugoslav press of the country's worst financial scandal since the communist takeover after the war.


-Official coverage of an internal struggle between hardliners and pragmatists over economic reforms in Czechoslovakia, and of a corruption trial of party higher-ups in Bratislava.

One of the most significant developments was the decision by Polish authorities to hold a referendum -- the first since 1946 -- over the pace of economic reforms they intend to implement over the next three years.

In a country where, until recently, turnouts for communist-style, one-candidate elections hovered around 99 percent, only two-thirds of eligible Poles showed up to vote.

The referendum was defeated, and the government was put in the unprecedented position of taking into consideration the voice of the people by slowing down its timetable.

Prominent dissident Jacek Kuron said he was encouraged the turnout figures were even published.

'The results were obvious, but the honesty is really surprising,' he said.

In Hungary, glasnost exhibited itself in another unprecedented way in September. For two days, the normally rubber-stamp Parliament hotly debated a government bill to implement the East Bloc's first personal income tax. The bill passed overwhelmingly, but not before some members succeeded in adding amendments.

Hungary was also the stage for the East Bloc's first independent peace conference. About 70 representatives from non-government sponsored peace groups -- mostly from the West but including representatives from Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany -- exchanged views for two days with no attempt at police intervention.


'The amazing thing about the meeting is that it wasn't closed down,' said Joanne Landy of the New York-based campaign for Peace and Democracy.

Elsewhere around the East Bloc, glasnost gave opposition activists the opportunity to test the limits of the system.

In Czechoslovakia, where Gorbachev-style political reforms were tried nearly two decades ago only to be crushed by Warsaw Pact tanks, Charter 77, the East Bloc's oldest human rights group, announced on its 10th anniversary it would become more visible.

'People became aware the Charter can play a larger role -- in fact, they overestimate our possibilities,' said Charter spokeswoman Lubuse Silhanova. She said perhaps 100 ordinary citizens have approached the Charter about their problems this year, compared with a handful the year before.

In Romania, an eruption of workers in the industrial city of Brasov prompted a veteran Communist Party official to warn the party to address the workers' 'legitimate grievances.' It was an unprecedented statement in a country that has been tightly controlled by Nicolae Ceausescu since he came to power in 1965.

But the most surprising exhibitions of glasnost were those between East Bloc countries over matters never openly discussed before.

Gorbachev's announcement of a joint Soviet-Polish commission to investigate 'blank spots' in their mutual history prompted speculation the Soviet Union may finally address the massacre of 10,000 Polish officers in Soviet territory during World War II. The tragedy has soured relations between the two peoples for four decades.


When Hungary produced a three-volume 'History of Transylvania' - an area ceded to Romania after World WEar II containing 2 million ethnic Hungarians -- a public dispute erupted between the two allies that was quelled only by high-level diplomatic meetings.

In Bulgaria, the official press for the first time carried criticism of Romania for emissions of chlorine gas at a border town that periodically envelops the Bulgarian city of Russe.

There is a consensus among East European experts and dissidents alike, however, that the opening-up process cannot continue indefinitely.

'I believe Gorbachev will survive -- time is on his side,' said Yugoslavia's most prominent dissident, Milovan Djilas. 'But the Soviet Union cannot permit autonomization of Eastern Europe, especially in cultural and intellectual life.'

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