Harder Than It Looks

November 30, 1990|By Ernest B. Furgurson

WASHINGTON — Washington. A YEAR AGO I was gazing half-awake out the window of a minivan, speeding through morning darkness and thick fog somewhere between Berlin and Dresden. In a pulloff beside the autobahn, a sleepy driver was trying to get his truck started by running a torch of oil-soaked rags up and down under its diesel tank and frozen fuel lines.

To me, that scene was a cartoon of Eastern Europe in the revolutionary fall of 1989. From Berlin to Moscow, dawn was breaking. The question was whether the new governments and economies just stirring would explode before they could be coaxed up to cruising speed, or would sit there and refuse to move at all.

This week, answers are popping all over that part of the world.

Food shortages have made Muscovites furious with Mikhail Gorbachev. As long ago as last summer, visitors from the Soviet Union were telling me there could be civil war again. Between great Russia and the restive republics? No, between Russians and Russians, Gorbachevites and Yeltsinites.

Mr. Gorbachev's phased transition to a semi-market economy satisfies no one, neither those eager for change nor those afraid to emerge from the cocoon of socialism.

A year ago in Poland, seedbed of the anti-communist revolution, intellectuals from the Solidarity movement began the boldest conversion to capitalism. Its mastermind, finance minister Leszek Balcerowicz, did not want to risk gradual change. He insisted on shock therapy, shifting rapidly to tight money, removing price controls, raising taxes. He recognized the political risks, but in our conversation preferred to skate past them.

I asked each Polish leader, how long do you have to make this work? Pessimists said a month, optimists said till this fall. Bronislaw Geremek, Solidarity's parliamentary leader, was blunt. He said the sacrifices asked by the Solidarity government were likely to be challenged by the Solidarity trade union that created the government. Lech Walesa, figurehead of Solidarity, was likely to lead that challenge.

This week, Mr. Walesa has done just that, defeating his own ex-comrade Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, in a sometimes nasty presidential campaign. Mr. Mazowiecki has resigned with his government, admitting that the country was unwilling to stay with his ''painful, yet indispensable program of climbing out of economic catastrophe.''

In this referendum on austerity, the prime minister did not even finish second. Voters put Stanislaw Tyminski, a fast-talking emigre businessman of whom they know almost nothing, into a runoff. His main attraction is that he became a prosperous capitalist abroad; he makes getting there look easy, not painful.

If any theme runs through the year-later troubles of Eastern Europe, it is that citizens of the newly free countries still naively think that making capitalism work should be easy. For four decades they envied relatives in the West. Few Poles and Russians believed propaganda about the downtrodden proletariat in the capitalist world. They preferred the opposite fallacy, that most Americans, West Germans, anyone who lived free of communism was rich.

Thus in Poland, the radical realists Mazowiecki and Balcerowicz are rejected in favor of a simplistic demagogue and a fairy-tale entrepreneur. In the Soviet Union, the pragmatic reformer Gorbachev is like a stunt man in the Moscow circus, desperately juggling 15 balls representing 15 republics while trying to feed a huge surly bear.

In Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel's Civic Forum faced the country's first free municipal elections since before World War II, and won. But it got only 35 percent of the vote. Who ran second? The Communists, with 17 percent. In a different test last summer, Mr. Havel's party got 49.5 percent. One cited reason for the slump is unhappiness with Mr. Havel's efforts to switch to a market economy.

In Bulgaria, Premier Andrei Lukanov's government resigned in the face of massive street protests over -- what else? -- an austerity budget, this one imposing sharp state-controlled price increases. Electricity, some food and consumer goods are rationed, and the country cannot pay its foreign debts.

Some thought the East Germans, the hardest working people in what was once the Communist bloc, would greet revolutionary change in an orderly way. But this week a quarter-million rail workers were on strike, demanding higher wages. East Germans refuse the logic of economists who say their main advantage in the transition to capitalism is their low pay scale, less than half that in West Germany.

I think back to that truck beside the autobahn, and I can see it today -- running a few kilometers, stopping in a cloud of black smoke, backfiring, sputtering, grinding on again, with a grumbling driver who thought he would have a new Mercedes by now.

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