Two powerful but opposing forces are tugging at Moscow's allies in Eastern Europe with growing intensity.
While most of the Warsaw Pact nations continue to strive for greater autonomy from the Kremlin over their national affairs, they are falling into deepened dependency on the Soviet Union as a result of economic slowdowns and breakdowns in the region.
How to manage these two trends, which may make political cooperation within the bloc more difficult as economic cooperation becomes more necessary, is one of the major challenges confronting the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev.
The air of uncertainty and paralysis that surrounded Kremlin rule during the drawn-out final years of Leonid Brezhnev and the abbreviated terms of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko had its benefits for the Soviet satellites. East European leaders took advantage of the period to promote national interests and ambitions.
East Germany flirted more vigorously with West Germany. Hungary launched another wave of economic reforms. Romania continued to draw attention to its foreign policy differences with Moscow.
That Gorbachev might try to reimpose a Stalinist type of uniformity on the bloc is dismissed by East Europeans and western specialists alike as something the new Soviet leader would neither contemplate nor be capable of achieving.
But undercutting Eastern Europe's hope of attaining wider independence of Moscow is the fatigue and failure of its economies.
The strategy of the 1970s -- based on an opening to the West and the thought that western credits and imported technology could revitalize the region's economies, sparing the need for structural reforms -- proved disastrous. So far, the 1980s have yielded no bold alternative strategies for the Soviet Bloc's long-term recovery.
Meanwhile, Moscow, beset by its own economic difficulties, is hardening trade and investment demands on its allies. It is insisting on better quality Eastern European goods in return for the oil and natural gas it supplies the bloc. It is also seeking greater participation from its allies in the development of Siberian energy reserves. The expected effect of these requests will be to pull bloc members into tighter orbit around Moscow.
"In the 1970s, the East Europeans looked as if they had credit and trade alternatives, which don't look so feasible anymore, and they are falling back on the Soviets," said a western ambassador with long experience in bloc affairs. "The other side of the picture is that national questions are becoming stronger. So while cooperation at the economic level becomes more necessary, cooperation at the political level becomes more problematical." Waning Affluence
Always a worry for the communist elites is how their societies will accept the vanishing prospect of economic growth. Public support for socialism was won with promises that the captive nations of Eastern Europe could at least look forward to more affluent lives.
Last month Eastern Bloc governments marked the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe with boasts of socialism's achievements in rebuilding the nations of the region. Indeed, there was much to look back on with pride. From the war's debris arose roads, homes and factories, and a mass migration took place from the depressed countryside to the cities, creating a new urban proletariat.
But the large majority of East Europeans were born since 1945, and their reference points are the 1960s and 1970s, when the Soviet Bloc was striding toward a consumer society. Measured against these benchmarks, the reality of the present -- burdened by shortages of such simple basic goods as toothpaste and toilet paper, poor or nonexistent telephone service, lengthy waiting periods for cars and home appliances and a scarcity of housing -- appears grim and depressing.
Some countries suffer less than others. The East Germans and Hungarians are better-fed and better-supplied. So are the Czechoslovaks, though downhill drift is strong in their country. The Bulgarians are agriculturally sufficient but industrially poor. The Romanians are poor and undergoing severe austerity measures. The Poles are bankrupt.
Overall statistics confirm the general sense of economic stagnation evident in the streets of Eastern Europe. Except in East Germany, national incomes in all the East European states grew more slowly in the past four years than in the 1976-80 planning period, when growth rates were in turn significantly lower than in 1971-75.
"The mood on V-E Day this year was much different from 10 years ago," remarked a 36-year-old Polish writer and father. "The situation then was better. Today, food is rationed, housing is in short supply, health service is poor -- the list of calamities is countless.
"Is that the position someone who claims a big victory is supposed to be in? I don't think so. This year was a big holiday only for the war veterans. For my generation, which grew up during improving times, things are getting worse."
Admittedly, the economic slippage in Poland has been the most pronounced in Eastern Europe. Poland borrowed more from the West in the 1970s than other bloc states, and wasted the most on uncompleted industrial projects and ill-advised licensing agreements.
But even in Hungary, which is affluent by Eastern Bloc standards, the official rhetoric is being toned down in recognition of harder times. No longer is the talk of uninterrupted progress and the triumph of socialism over capitalism.
At a congress of the Hungarian Socialist Workers Party in April, Ferenc Havasi, a Central Committee secretary, declared that Eastern European socialism is shedding its "revolutionary illusions." He said that Communists used to believe that socialism meant "unbroken economic development" and a steady rise in the standard of living, "immune" from the effects of the political and economic "crises of capitalism." But such illusions had to be discarded now, he concluded, because the path to socialism had turned out to be "bumpier" than expected, full of doubts and setbacks. An Exhausted Ideology
Not only the economies have lost their verve. Among the biggest challenges facing East European leaderships is to instill a renewed sense of energy and excitement in their Communist parties.
Gone is the ideological fervor that attracted some of the best and the brightest of the Eastern Bloc to national communist movements in the 1950s and 1960s. The primary argument heard nowadays to justify the continued supremacy of the party is raison d'etat, code for having to live in the shadow of the Soviet Union and the need therefore to pledge allegiance to communism. This kind of argument attracts chiefly opportunists.
"It's hard to find a real Marxist anywhere to have a good argument with," lamented Ernest Bryll, a Polish writer who left the party in 1981 when about 1 million others did.
Reflecting the intellectual exhaustion of Marxist ideology are signs of a religious renewal. The pattern is as uneven as the patchwork of Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox faiths that crisscross the six junior bloc partners.
But particularly in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary and Poland, clergymen and westerners report growing numbers of people turning to, or turning back to, churches that under Marxist theory should not exist.
Some are seeking the church not always out of religious motives but to find political shelter for artistic expression or to protest the military arms buildup. Many believers, especially in Poland and Czechoslovakia, have been galvanized and emboldened by the naming of the first East European pope -- the former Karol Wojtyla of Krakow, now Pope John Paul II.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the religious renewal for the communists is the involvement of young people. East European youth are turning toward anything and everything, it seems, except the party. Many of those not involved with the church are, like their western counterparts, into sex, drugs and rock and roll. They eagerly seek western literature and films and are caught up in a wave of materialistic desire for fashionable clothes, radios, cassettes and so on.
Only 11 percent of Poland's young people have enlisted in the party, according to official figures. In Hungary, a recent sociological study sponsored by the party's Central Committee confirmed that communist ideology retains little influence today on most youth, who were said to favor individuality and independence instead of the party's collective ideals.
"We used to believe that the generation growing up under socialism would not be infected by nationalism, anti-Semitism, a petty bourgeois outlook, nor be influenced by religion and bourgeois ideas," Havasi told Hungary's party delegates. He implied that this was far from the case. Divergent Paths
As East European regimes look for ways out of their economic and social predicaments, they butt up against certain constraints. One is Soviet hegemony. A second is what is referred to as "the leading role of the party," meaning the Communist Party's monopoly on power, which remains inviolable.
But within those bounds, East European states have followed their own paths of development. Since the end of Stalinist conformity 30 years ago, each has found important points on which to depart from Soviet thinking -- and each has been doing so more assertively.
Poland under Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski has permitted the Roman Catholic Church to become a virtual junior partner in running the country, largely out of weakness but also in hopes of gaining its assistance in subduing what remains the bloc's most restless nation.
The Polish state also is resigned to leaving most of the country's arable land in the hands of private farmers rather than trying to collectivize them. It has adopted sweeping economic reform legislation, though in practice the reforms are now largely stalled. While genuine political pluralism seems out of the question, authorities do tolerate the broadest airing of opinion found anywhere in the bloc, even if public debates tend to focus more on nuance than substance.
Hungary under Janos Kadar is the region's leading economic reformer and has instituted a second major round of decentralizing, free market-type measures. The initial reform push was blocked by hard-line opposition in the early 1970s.
Budapest officials have cultivated the most privileged relations with the West in trade, tourism and scientific exchange of any bloc state.
East Germany copes with the pain of division by nurturing trade and financial ties with West Germany, while constantly reaffirming its loyalty to Moscow. In a dramatic standoff with the Kremlin last year that tested this balancing act, East German leader Erich Honecker openly toyed with the idea of going ahead with a visit to West Germany over Soviet objections.
Eventually, Honecker scrubbed the trip, but the drama showed an emboldened East German leadership committed to pursuing rapprochement with Bonn.
Romania is governed by Nicolae Ceausescu more autocratically and nepotistically than any other bloc state. Yet Ceausescu appears to relish tweaking the Soviets by suggesting on numerous occasions that his country is a reluctant member of the Warsaw Pact.
Romania defied the Soviet-led boycott of the 1984 Olympic Games, sending a team to Los Angeles. It took pains this year to tell the world that it originally wanted the Warsaw Treaty to be only briefly prolonged.
Bulgaria, long regarded as one of the Soviet Union's most docile allies, has introduced a series of economic experiments involving a more flexible organizational structure and a greater role for financial incentives. It has also expressed interest in expanding economic ties with the West, inviting foreign investors into joint ventures.
Only Czechoslovakia adheres to orthodox Soviet lines in all major respects. The Prague leadership remains traumatized by the Soviet-led invasion of 1968 that squelched the country's last reform movement, known as the Prague Spring.
Bloc officials now readily acknowledge that differences exist between them in economic planning, approaches toward the West and tolerance of internal dissent.
To a certain extent, diversity and experimentation in Eastern Europe are being welcomed by the Soviets as a testing ground for new ideas and methods that may eventually be absorbed in the Communist motherland. Gorbachev himself spent time in 1983 studying Hungary's cooperative farms, which rent plots for private cultivation.
Even so, the greater attention being paid to national concerns has inevitably led to strains not only between the East Europeans and the Soviets but also between some of the smaller bloc members.
Hungary, for instance, has begun to press Romania about the treatment of people in its former territory of Transylvania.
Another point of dispute within the alliance erupted after the Soviets broke off arms talks with the United States in 1983. Hungary, supported by East Germany, intensified western contacts, hoping to keep connections to the West insulated from the superpower freeze. But Czechoslovakia, with backing in Moscow, sharply disapproved.
Some western specialists detect loose coalitions of East European states at work these days attempting to moderate Soviet actions and policies -- Hungary, East Germany and Romania in the foreign policy field, for instance, and Hungary and Poland in economic reform. East European officials deny much overt scheming of this sort takes place but concede it sometimes appears that way.
"There is no declared intention, no plan, nothing explicit," said Wojciech Multan, deputy director of Warsaw's Institute of International Relations. "But it happens. It goes on by itself."
Presumably to help smooth over growing differences, Warsaw Pact members have decided to hold more frequent top-level meetings. For the East Europeans, the prospect of extra pow-wows with Gorbachev carries the hope of exerting greater influence in Soviet Bloc policy making. But the meetings could have the opposite effect, giving Gorbachev added opportunities to rope his allies into common stands on international and economic issues.
Despite the external and internal pressures on them, the regimes of Eastern Europe still largely exude considerable confidence about their holds on power. This derives in great measure from the stability and longevity of their leaderships.
Bulgaria's Todor Zhivkov and Hungary's Janos Kadar have governed for three decades. Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu this year celebrated his 20th year at the top. Czechoslovakia's Gustav Husak has ruled for 16 years. East Germany's Erich Honecker took charge 14 years ago.
But most of the East European bosses are now old men. Zhivkov and Kadar are 73, Husak and Honecker 72. Ceausescu, physically the most vigorous, is 67.
Throughout the region, a new generation of leaders is coming to power. In this sense, the Soviet Union is ahead, having already passed the torch to a man who was too young to fight in World War II.
The new East European crop displays much of the same pragmatism, the same technocratic interests as Gorbachev.
"They are a generation who have grown up under socialism," observed Jan Pudlak, director of Prague's Institute of International Relations. "Their thinking has been influenced by that fact. They haven't the sentimental feelings or the same kind of frustrations my generation has had."
How these "little Gorbachevs" stand up to the main one in Moscow will go a long way toward determining the future of Eastern Europe.
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