196. "As the party ends, East Europe faces tough times" Hartford Courant, (January 19, 1990).
It is essential to prepare ourselves for the fact hat the good news from Eastern Europe is more or less over. The Soviet Union’s southern republics are not the only trouble spots in a crumbling communist empire. America’s new democratic comrades in East Europe and our relationship with them are also about to face turbulent, testy times.
In part, it is simply a matter of what they could possibly do for an encore. They have already shown to the world that communism is dead as an ideology and much diminished as an international power; they have launched six democracies and started on the road to capitalist economies. What should we expect next? That they become baseball players, conversant in the Federalist Papers and neatly divided into Democrats and Republicans?
We may get some more good news. Albania, too, may be swept in the tidal wave of change. The Warsaw Pact may be dismantled and these formerly communist countries may be free to join a European Community of nations. But that is about as far as it will go. By and large, the euphoria of people-power will give way to tough economic times, much political strife and I am sorry to predict, serious setbacks.
One major source of these setbacks is going to be economic. Eastern Europeans widely hold the belief that once governmental controls are slashed and the force of the market is freed, a Western-style economy will quickly arise. Poland has led the charge. Laws have been passed and policies are being implemented to drastically cut government subsidies, privatize industries, introduce stocks and even allow unfettered conversion of the zloty into Western currencies, an essential prerequisite for attracting massive capital from the West. This is supposed to be followed, in short order, by a great increase in productivity, mass availability of consumer goods, and of all the other comforts associated with the American way of life.
But there is no way economic change can be that swift. Sure, some improvement might be achieved. For instance, if farmers are freed to respond directly to consumers, thy may significantly increase their production. But even this depends in part on the availability of equipment, fertilizers, transportation and other factors. Other parts of these obsolete economies will, in all likelihood, turn around at an even slower pace. People who for decades were conditioned to work poorly and carelessly because they were poorly paid and no one cared about quality, will not become efficient, dedicated workers overnight.
Last but not least, enormous investments are required to modernize these economies - from installing phone lines to building modern port facilities.
In these economic difficulties lie political booby traps. Capitalism brings with it not only a host of goodies but also the need to work hard and compete. These transitions often entail high inflation and rising unemployment, two pills few in the East are ready for or willing to swallow.
We already hear much talk about the security provided by the old regime in which the most elementary basics - though shoddy and obtained only after long queues and finagling - were available to all. Now these reformers face Western-style homelessness, families unable to acquire basics as subsidies are drastically cut and so on. The high prices and unemployment will, in turn, provoke political repercussions.
People in Eastern Europe are just learning that they can express their ideas and preferences freely and vigorously. They perceive attempts to curb such expression as a return to censorship and suppression. Factionalism is rampant, opposition fierce and often a working consensus has failed to be found. State-imposed unity has been replaced with nationalism and ethnic strife in Poland, Hungary and the Baltic republics. In short, there is a long way to go from declaring democracy and passing constitutional amendments to learning the practice of democracy.
There will be some attempts to use force to keep matters under control - whether by the hand of old Communist groups in conjunction with the army, of one region against another, or even by the new democratic groups preempting attempts at a coup. And there will be leaders, parties and social movements demanding a return to some kind of controlled economy or polity.
Five years from now in Eastern Europe we will be facing not a handful of mini-Americas, but troubled economies and polities more reminiscent of the Philippines than of, say, Sweden. Some countries, such as those relatively will endowed, like Czechoslovakia, or with special ties to the West, like East Germany, may be exceptions to the rule.
We must follow up the current celebration by doing all that we can to lower expectations, rather than promise to provide more help than we can possibly deliver and oversell the instant payoffs of capitalism. We should explain that capitalism does not boast quick results; rather, it assumes that hard work is rewarded in the long run.
Above all, we should be clear how far we are willing to go to stop armed attempts to return Eastern Europe to old regimes. Assuming we wouldn’t go far at all, we should be careful not to imply otherwise.
At the same time, we should let it be known that we shall condemn morally and sanction economically reactionary movements. We need to signal that our quick patchup with China after the Tiananmen Square massacre was an exception to the rule, and to indicate that the invasion of Panama does not set a precedent.
Meanwhile, ready the umbrellas; the Eastern European bursts of sunshine are ending; stormy clouds are closing in.