`WE SHOULD WORK LIKE STRONTIUM'
Timothy Garton Ash, recently in Eastern Europe,
explores the prospects for change there, after the Chernobyl disaster and 500 days of Mr Gorbachev
MR GORBACHEV, memorably de- scribed by one Conservative MP as the Soviet John F. Kennedy, has been with us now for almost 500 days — half Kennedy's 1,000. He has had his Party congress, and so have most of the fraternal Parties of the bloc. Perhaps it is not too soon to ask: what's new? What have the 'winds of change' brought to Eastern Europe?
`Radioactive clouds from Chernobyl' was, predictably enough, the answer I received more than once on a recent trip to Eastern Europe — with the inevitable black jokes to follow. What is the highest stage of communism? A meltdown. What's the new route for the 'peace bicycle race'? Hiroshima-Nagasaki-Chernobyl. How do you measure the intensity of Czech (Hungarian, Polish)-Soviet friendship? With a geiger counter. The new Soviet X-ray machine? A bus queue in Kiev. (As always, almost identical jokes surface simultaneously — and, it seems, spon- taneously — in the different countries of the bloc.) But even a more serious and sympathetic (to the Soviet Union) analysis would have to return the answer: not a great deal, so far.
True, on his visits to East Germany and Hungary, Gorbachev has given cautious approval to the very different economic paths which these two countries have followed. But only cautious approval, in very general terms; and at the same time he has insisted on the need for closer integration of Comecon, and, in particular, for better quality goods to be supplied to the Soviet Union. This is bad news for East European countries which need to export all the better quality goods they can to the West to earn hard currency to service their debts and — if there is any left over — to invest in the new technology or parts which go to make the better quality goods which Mr Gorbachev wants.
True, he has taken some initiatives to try to improve the general atmosphere of East-West relations. But at the same time he has made it very clear that it is he who will take the initiatives: no little trips to West Germany for the East German leader Erich Honecker, thank you very much. (It is perhaps poetic justice that the man who has prevented so many of his own people from visiting their compatriots in West Germany — remember that Honecker personally supervised the erection of the Berlin Wall — should now himself be prevented from so doing.) True, he has made some arms control proposals — two parts propaganda to one part substance which, if they finally led to a real slow- down of the arms race, could just conceiv- ably reduce the burden of military expendi- ture on Eastern Europe too. (West Euro- pean states are struggling to get in on the American Star Wars research programme, East European states would love to get out of the Soviet one.) But in the meantime he is demanding that the East European allies do more to 'pull their weight' inside the Warsaw Pact. (Hungary is a notably adept shirker — the Svejk of the Pact.) In short, a very mixed bag.
Most longer-term prognoses for 'change' in Eastern Europe — understood to mean change for the better — have concentrated on two kinds of possibility. These may roughly be labelled 'Finlandisation' and `reform'. The key to both is seen to be held in the Kremlin. Proponents of 'Finlandisa- tion', a label, incidentally, quite unfair to the Finns, suggest that a new, younger generation of Soviet leaders, perhaps more `rational' or 'pragmatic', less obsessed with the causes and results of the second world war, might, sooner or later, re-think the fundamentals of their position in Eastern Europe. In return for cast-iron guarantees of their vital security interests, they would concede to East European states as large a degree of internal political, social and economic freedom as is enjoyed by the Finns. They would then discover that they were better off themselves. Of course this would depend, crucially, on inducements offered by the West. These inducements could range — depending on the propo- nent — from a new 'détente', through some more imaginative proposals for the re-activation of the four-power machinery in Germany, to full nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from Nato (Dissolve the blocs!'). `Reform' is a different though related notion. Roughly speaking — and of course I am painting with a very broad brush the notion of 'reform' involves the govern- ments of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe coming to recognise that it will be better for them if they change, gradually but fundamentally, the way their econo- mies are run. This economic reform will necessarily demand social and political reforms, which in turn will (gradually but fundamentally) change — and limit — the ways they exercise their power. This will be better for them because their populations will be better off, and therefore more contented, and because it is only thus that they can hope to 'keep up' with the West — economically, but in the end also militarily. Such reforms might be tried first on the periphery of the empire, but they could not go very far unless they were supported by the centre. Of course this, too, would depend on the inducements offered by the West. Suggested induce- ments include trade, credits and technol- ogy transfers.
Now it would be a rash man who confidently asserted, after just 500 days of the new leadership, that neither 'Finland- isation' nor 'reform' is on the real agenda for the rest of the century. After all, those who see Gorbachev as a reformer will argue, the man has first to consolidate his own domestic position, and he is bound to start by trying the more traditional methods of discipline (less alcohol, less absenteeism, less stealing) and 'coercive modernisation'. When these have been seen not to bring the required results, then he will move on to the truly radical reforms which he privately thinks are essential. Perhaps. But probably not.
At the moment there is only one country in the bloc which has changed the structure of its economy to a degree which really merits the label 'reform'. That country is Hungary. Yet back in Budapest on a brief visit I was struck even more forcefully than I was last autumn (`Mrs Thatcher's Hun- gary', 2 November) by the growing brittle- ness of the experiment. All the problems I identified then — frustration at declining real standards of living exacerbated by growing inequalities, trade and credit im- balances, technological lag, infighting among Kadar's would-be heirs, the Hunga- rian minorities problem — all are still there, only more so: and on top of them has come Chernobyl, blighting Hungarian food exports to the West. The state looks like a juggler who is just beginning to lose control of his batons: he hasn't dropped any yet, but they are wobbling. This is not to say that there are no solutions in sight. There are. The cure for the transition pains of the reform is more reform. The answer to the distortions of a partial reintroduc- tion of the market is more market. But even if there were a consensus inside the Hungarian party-state in favour of further reform, which there isn't, this would re- quire a special licence from Mr Gorbachev. So far as we can judge, they have not got it. And from Mr Gorbachev's point of view, we can entirely understand why. It is difficult to encourage the legalisation of the 'second economy' in Hungary while wag- ing war on the 'second economy' in the Soviet Union.
So let us just sup- pose, for the sake of argument, that neith- er 'Finlandisation' nor major reform is on the real agenda for the rest of the century. Gorbachev will have his work cut out just to consoli- date his own position in the Soviet power structure. (In a fasci- nating recent inter- view, Roy Medvedev suggested that Gor- bachev found himself in a minority in his own Politburo when he argued, on the second day after the Cher- nobyl disaster, that they should give as full and 'correct' information as possible. According to Medvedev only two other Politburo members supported him.) Through discipline, imported (or stolen) Western technology and some administra- tive restructuring of the centralised com- mand economy (but no fundamental re- form of it), he will enable the Soviet Union to keep up — militarily — with the United States, while at the same time preserving basic political stability at home: appeasing the pressure of rising expectations and containing the centrifugal forces of nationalisation in the Baltic states, the Ukraine and Central Asia. (Another reason why any decentralisation is risky.) More than that he will not do. Far from unleashing a further round of reform and innovation in Eastern Europe, like Khrushchev, he will set new limits and tighten the reins of Soviet control. Any fundamental renegotiation of the Soviet position there will be out of the question. At the end of the century the client elites will be more dependent than ever on the Soviet military presence — or the threat of it. Then as now, the military straitjacket will also be their life-jacket. They them- selves will have neither the will nor the power to initiate and carry through major reforms from above, without a decisive Soviet lead. No one will go further than Hungary has gone already — and Hungary itself will retreat.
Let us suppose all this, for the sake of argument. Does it follow that there will be no 'real' or 'significant' change in Eastern Europe over the next decade? It does not. Emphatically not. You just have to know where to look for it. If you look from above, at the formal, official structures of the system and the empire, you may well see `no change' or, at best, very small change. But if you look from below, from the point of view of the individual man or woman living in one of these countries, then a great deal has changed, is changing and will continue to change — in practice, though not in theory. What you find in all these countries, though in very different shapes and degrees, are European societies which are increasingly active, coherent and unillusioned, well-informed and sceptical, yearning towards the capitalist democra- cies of the West, but also towards an ideal Europe which does not exist in the West. These societies press — sometimes with the sharp cutting edge of organised opposi- tion, more often with the soft diffuse pressure of half-articulated expectations on regimes which for their part have no clear direction to offer, 'communists' who themselves no longer believe in their own ideology and privately acknowledge that they are crippled by their adherence to an irrational economic system and a one- dimensional military empire — on which, nonetheless, they depend for their own survival in power.
The 'change' which these states undergo is therefore rather the change of 'change and decay' than the change of 'reform/ What we are watching in Eastern Europe is the decay of would-be totalitarian regimes, the slow, reluctant retreat of the totalit- arian state. This decay brings huge costs in material standards of living, in health care, in the environment — but it also brings opportunities. In many important respects these states are 'going soft'. Facing societies which, increasingly, know what they want, but themselves with an increasingly vague (or merely cynical) idea of what they want, communist leaders allow — or rather, do not prevent developments which in theory they should fight with all their might. Hayek and Orwell are read at their universities. Small- scale capitalism flourishes under their noses. The masses flock to church. It is of communism, now, that we hear the 'melan- choly, long, with- drawing roar'.
Organised political opposition, the small minority misleading- ly known in the West as 'dissidents', are an important part of this development — as the markers of one extreme, as the crys- tallisers or precipi- tants of more wide- spread social discon- tent, as analysts and opinion-formers. But to look only — or even mainly — at 'dissidents' is really to miss the point. The 'other side' is a whole society. And even to formulate the argument in terms of 'opposition' is to risk misunderstanding. For the key question here is not 'What can we make the government do?' nor even `What can we prevent the government from doing?' but rather 'What can we do without the government stopping us?'. There is still very little that people in Eastern Europe can make their own gov- ernments do, or even prevent them doing. There were some small protest actions after Chernobyl (the largest and most explicit demonstration against Czechoslo- vakia's use of nuclear power was by Au- strian students who travelled to Prague specially for the purpose — a rather touching variant of 'rent-a-mob'). But who seriously believes that the governments of Eastern Europe will abandon their plans for growing dependence on nuclear power? Moreover, if there is some particular thing these governments very much want to prevent they will prevent it. If they want to lock up the leaders of underground Soli- darity they will, eventually, lock up the leaders of underground Solidarity (the real wonder about the arrest of Zbigniew Bujak and his two colleagues was that he eluded them for four and a half years before it). Yet the tide of social change flows on around the authorities' feet, and they can no more stop it than could Canute.
Last Sunday the Congress of the Polish United Workers' Party opened in Warsaw. In the presence of Mr Gorbachev, General Jaruzelski spoke of the 'return to normal- ity' in Poland. But on the very same day the Primate of Poland, with all his bishops, held a solemn Mass in Poznan Cathedral to commemorate the workers' rising there 30 years ago, during which more than 70 people were killed by the security forces. `The workers in 1956,' said Cardinal Glemp, 'protested against the errors com- mitted by the authorities, and paid with their blood.' After the Mass, several thousand people began marching towards a monument erected in the heyday of Soli- darity to the memory of those killed in 1956. They were dispersed by police using truncheons — but not guns. This was Polish normality. Of course elsewhere in Eastern Europe the social — or national aspirations are not so clearly and dramati- cally expressed. But they are there, nonetheless, unmistakably, even in the villas of the Hungarian 'new rich' and the pubs of Prague, in what the Czech play- wright Vaclav Havel has memorably called `the fifth column of social consciousness'. It is extremely difficult to foresee how social change will translate into political change, how the voices at the Mass affect the voices at the Congress. But in the long term, translate it must. Even today, one can see some effects, not only in what governments do not do (and do not prevent their people from doing), but also in the national costume in which they present themselves to their own people — in their diverse bids for legitimacy as the guardians of national tradition and national interest, which also, albeit marginally, affect their own relationship with Moscow.
It is even more difficult to determine how `the West' can best encourage or influence internal developments which are so gradual, unplanned, subterranean and diverse. But the first step to wisdom is certainly the recognition that this is the one general kind of change which is probable in Eastern Europe over the next decade. Not reform, but decay. Not systemic change planned from above, but unsystemic change rising from below. Not Finlandisa- tion but — what? Some years ago I coined in these pages the term `Ottomanisation' to describe the kind of change that I thought probable in Eastern Europe. I was thinking of the process whereby, as the power and ideological fervour of the centre decayed, the outer territories of the Ottoman Empire very gradually came to enjoy quite diverse patterns of social, economic and ultimately political life — until, finally, there was even a Christian governor in Serbia. Well, merciless historians have subsequently picked to pieces my Ottoman analogy, and it will surely be a long time before there is once again a Christian ruler in Prague, Budapest or Warsaw. But until someone comes up with a better term I shall continued to say `Ottomanisation' rather than Tinlandisation'.
In Budapest, one of Hungary's leading novelists tried to depict for me, by way of simile, how people in Eastern Europe could best work towards this kind of change. 'We must let a hundred flowers bloom,' he said. 'We must be like the hydra, with a thousand heads.' Then his wry, lined face lit up with the joy of finding, at last, an original simile. Of course it was Chernobyl which supplied it. `Yes,' he cried, 'we must work like stron- tium — slow, invisible, but deadly.'