'Europe' Spreads Eastward

ELIZABETH POND

October 01, 1993|By ELIZABETH POND

WARSAW. — Warsaw -- Boris Yeltsin outwitted the hard-liners this week. Next time, he might not.

That's the first reason for inviting Poland and other baby democracies in Central Europe to join NATO -- to prevent any Russian or Ukrainian turmoil from spilling west.

The second reason is just the opposite: Central Europe is already so stable that there's little military risk for the West in spreading NATO's security zone to cover it.

The venerable North Atlantic Treaty Organization is therefore mulling over asking the eager Poles, Czechs and Hungarians to join this exclusive Western military club at some point. That's how much the world has changed in the three years since the Soviet empire collapsed and the last Polish soldier stopped pointing his gun at NATO under the watchful eye of a Soviet general.

To be sure, in the Balkans the world changed for the worse. The Serbs and Croats no longer feared war; Bosnia got raped. But miraculously, in Central Europe the world changed for the better.

Given the bloodshed elsewhere, hardly anybody has noticed. But for the first time in centuries, Poles and Hungarians are now starting to catch up with the prosperous West. For the first time they are learning democracy. For the first time they face no external threat and are not squeezed between acquisitive Russians and Germans.

Surprisingly, the electoral victory of the ex-Communists in Poland recently only confirms the trend. ''Whoever still supports a centrally planned economy must be an idiot!'' the 39-year-old leader of the winning Left Democratic Alliance, Aleksander Kwasniewski, exclaimed as he waited for the call to become prime minister. He is determined to win respectability for his party, according to the conventional wisdom in Warsaw; he will even continue the tough austerity that is painful but is now giving Poland the fastest economic growth in Europe.

It's still fragile. But it's the kind of success -- especially in Poland -- that nobody dared predict when the Berlin Wall fell. The Poles, after all, had been independent for only 20 of the past 200 years. And those 20 years under the popular military strongman Jozef Pilsudski had witnessed Polish seizure of Ukrainian territory. In the late 1940s Ukrainians and Poles were still shooting at each other. Moreover, the Poles' reputation for industrial incompetence was such that ''Polish economy'' was German slang for a real mess. And among themselves, Poles historically preferred to be martyrs rather than compromisers. It all looked very unpromising.

Many analysts therefore assumed that today's Poles would be parochial, chip-on-the-shoulder, nationalistic -- and even susceptible to a new strongman who would compensate for the economic hardship of modernization with flaming anti-Ukrainian, anti-Russian, anti-German and anti-Semitic appeals.

It didn't happen. Instead, after a considerable scare, the first demagogic politician, Stanislaw Tyminski, got defeated in presidential run-offs. Then the right-wing parties in one of the government coalitions overshot their mark when they tried to carry out purges and vendettas in mid-1992 -- and got eased out.

Following that fright, parliamentarians from a variety of more centrist parties held their noses and worked with each other for almost a year in very un-Polish fashion, lurching from crisis to crisis, but sticking together.

They changed the election law to shut splinter parties out of the Sejm and produce stable majorities. Pending agreement on the full constitution, they passed a ''small'' one to begin institution building. And although they lagged in privatizing (or closing) state-owned rust-belt industries, they released private energies to produce, by now, more than half of gross national product.

At the same time, some convinced free-marketers ignored the weakness of governments formed ad hoc out of 29 squabbling parties in parliament and instituted one of the toughest programs of economic transition in the region, nicknamed ''shock therapy.'' Again, there were dire predictions that obstreperous Poles would take to the streets in protest.

Again, it didn't happen. Instead, unskilled workers and smallhold farmers took their complaints about unemployment and cheap European Community food imports to the ballot box, and in orderly fashion reinstated the former Communists they had kicked out only four years earlier. But by now, as Solidarity trade-union members charge, these former Communists are less representative of the shop floor than of the managers that many of the old apparatchiks have become.

Furthermore, if economic growth continues and begins to spread the new wealth that is so uneven right now, prospects are that by the next election the workers and even some of the farmers will find that they too are winners rather than losers from the new democracy and market.

George Bush's vaunted ''new world order'' may not exist. But Europe's does. The new cooperative system that gave Western Europe unprecedented peace and prosperity after 1945 is spreading eastward. Poland, fortunately, is not Yugoslavia.

Elizabeth Pond is a free-lance journalist based in Bonn.

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