In August 1968, Yugoslavia's leader Tito and Romania's President Nicolae Ceausescu received rapturous welcomes during visits to Czechoslovakia just a few days before the Soviet invasion. By demonstrating their support for the reformist rule of Alexander Dubcek, they were presenting themselves as champions of the cause of independence in the communist world.
Twelve years later, Eastern Europe is gripped by the drama of another reform movement, unfolding this time in Poland. Tito is dead, but his successors have expressed support for the Polish workers and their grievances. Ceausescu, however, has bitterly attacked the establishment of new independent trade unions in Poland -- and associated himself with hard-line criticism of the way the crisis has been handled.
The contrasting reactions of the Yugoslav and Romanian Communist parties to events in Poland says a lot about their differing ideological positions. For while they both uphold the principles of independence, internally they are organized entirely differently. Ceausescu's Romania is run on rigid Marxist-Lenin lines, with no concessions at all to political pluralism. Post-Tito Yugoslavia, on the other hand, has continued to reject the concept of centralized decision-making in favor of the freewheeling idea of workers' self-management.
So far, differences on Poland have not noticeably damaged the friendly relations between the two neighboring Balkan states. But the issue has provoked sharp disagreement at private meetings of Romanian and Yugoslav officials. When Ceausescu visited Yugoslavia last October, the two sides found their views so far apart that all mention of Poland was excluded from the final communique.
A revealing indicator of the way the Polish crisis is seen in the two countries is coverage in the press. Yugoslav newspapers have reported developments extensively, using their own correspondents to provide readers with a colorful and balanced picture of events in Poland from both the government and union points of view.
The only noticeable inhibition has been a tendency to play down speculation about a possible Soviet invasion. Yugoslav journalists say they have been told to keep calm on the sensitive issue of Poland's relations with its Warsaw Pack neighbors.
Romanian newspapers, by contrast, have resorted to the device of reprinting carefully selected extracts from the Polish press to paint a bleak view of a country in the grip of "antisocialist forces." Coverage otherwise has been extremely scant.
Privately, Yugoslav leaders regard the Polish crisis as a dramatic endorsement of their country's unique brand of communism, that was only made possible by Tito's successful defiance of the Soviet Union in 1948. It is certainly true that, by introducing a market-type economy and allowing its citizens freedom to travel, Yugoslavia has managed to avoid many of the social tensions evident in Poland.
But, despite their proud assertions that "it can't happen here," Yugoslav officials are aware that they face comparable economic problems -- with inflation running around 40 percent a year, unemployment at nearly 800,000 (or 12 percent of the labor force), and a foreign debt of $15 billion. The frightening example of Poland could help tip the balance in Yugoslavia toward the introduction of more economic and political reforms.
Ironically, as a result of last summer's strikes, Poland has now gone a good deal further than Yugoslavia in many areas. In Yugoslavia, there are no "independent" unions and no broadcasts of religious services over state radio. A group of intellectuals has been refused permission to start up an independent magazine, and restrictions on freedom of speech are considerably greater than in Poland.
Several weeks ago, a priest in the central republic of Bosnia was sentenced to six years in prison for singing "nationalistic" songs at a private baptism ceremony. Even bearing in mind Yugoslavia's special problem of ethnic rivalries, it is difficult to conceive of such a sentence being meted out in Poland for a similar offense.
In practice the right to strike is accepted in Yugoslavia. But great care is taken to localize any discontent and strikes are rarely reported in the official media until long after they have been settled.
Official Yugoslav concern over a possible Soviet intervention in Poland was reflected in a Foreign Ministry statement last month that warned of "incalculable negative consequences" that could be caused by "any foreign interference or outside pressure on Poland."
The Romanian attitude to the crisis is ambiguous for, unlike the Yugoslav centralized style of rule.
Ceausescu made his concern clear in a speech last October when he sharply attacked the very idea of "independent" unions, insisting that breaking the unity of the working class served the interests of "the bourgeoisie and imperialism." He criticized the Polish Communist Party for being out of touch with workers, but said this was no justification for strikes.
According to Polish sources, Ceausescu joined in criticizing the Polish government's handling of the crisis at last month's Warsaw Pack summit meeting in Moscow. By contrast, in 1968, he was notably absent from the series of summit meetings that proceded the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia.
In the past, labor unrest in Romania has been swiftly suppressed. The ingredients for further discontent are certainly present since living standards are significantly lower than anywhere else in the Soviet Bloc and Ceausescu has lost much of the personal popularity he accrued as a result of his nationalist saber rattling of previous years.
Given the heavy-handed nature of the Romanian leadership, however, it is difficult to envisage the emergency of a Polish-type protest movement.
With a Romanian trade union congress scheduled for next April, Ceausescu has also attempted to defuse unrest in advance by promising the unions "automony" from state bodies. It is not quite clear what this means, but in practice it will probably make little difference since the unions will remain under Communist Party domination.
At present Romania is the only communist state where one official, Emil Bobu, combines the dual functions of head of the trade unions and minister of labor.