A six-day visit here by Mikhail Gorbachev has underlined the growing contrast between the economic and political changes Gorbachev has initiated in the Soviet Union and the stubborn adherence of Eastern Europe's aging leaders to orthodox styles and sometimes clashing agendas.
Gorbachev, who today ended his first visit to East Germany since taking power, offered a strong message of the "momentous period of change" faced by the communist world and a need to embrace it with "bold experiments" in economic relations and the elimination of excessive bureaucracy, complacency and "antiquated, stereotyped ways of thinking."
His answer from the Soviet Union's strongest and most stable ally was a resounding and seemingly willful disregard of the call for innovation. East German leader Erich Honecker and the dozens of orators who followed him at the congress of the ruling Socialist Unity Party of East Germany embraced Gorbachev's proposals for European disarmament and dialogue with the West, but failed even to mention the new Soviet platform for socialism.
Instead, Honecker, 73, proudly reported that he had built "a society that can stand any comparison" and promised strict continuity of the conservative internal policies he has pursued for the past 15 years.
"The East Germans simply reinterpreted the events in the Soviet Union," a West European diplomat concluded. "They repeated the message of peace and dialogue because that suits their own interests, and ignored everything else. The feeling was that they don't have anything to learn from anybody."
The result was the strongest indication to date that most Eastern Europeans will maintain the leaders and policies they built during the 1960s and 1970s despite Gorbachev's shake-up in Moscow.
"It's been a pretty conservative performance" in the region, said another diplomat here. "The only change has been in the direction of tightening the system, not reforming it."
East Germany was the third East European state to hold a low-key party assembly following Gorbachev's dramatic staging of the Soviet Communist Party Congress in February. Czechoslovakia, dominated by an orthodox leadership, adopted some of the Soviet leader's rhetoric at a party meeting last month but announced no substantive changes in personnel or policy.
Bulgaria, long the Soviet Union's most loyal client, reshuffled its economic organization before a congress in Sofia this month, but reaffirmed the leadership of Todor Zhivkov, 74, who had been a close ally of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
In East Berlin, the discrepancy in Gorbachev's and Honecker's goals was matched by a glaring clash of political styles. In his message to the Congress Friday, Gorbachev expounded on the need for self-criticism "as an imperative precondition" for political success. The East German leaders applauded, but failed in five days of debate to criticize any aspect of their own state or to vary their aggressive, often boastful accounts of its successes.
While Gorbachev sought out the media for a carefully calculated appeal to West European opinion, the East Germans curtailed media coverage of the congress and ignored the Soviets' practice of scheduling numerous briefings and press conferences during their congress. Instead, the party indulged in elaborate, Stalinist-style propaganda tributes to Honecker that appeared to leave Gorbachev uncomfortable.
Diplomats said Gorbachev may be prepared to tolerate this resistance to his influence in exchange for maintaining stability here and in other East European countries. Preoccupied with internal reforms and foreign policy challenges ranging from negotiations with the United States to the war in Afghanistan, the Soviet leader may be unwilling to risk the upheavals that have followed past Soviet shake-ups of entrenched Communist leaders in Europe, according to these observers.
At the same time, East Germany's insistence on its status quo has been bolstered by its achievement of the strongest economic performance in the East Bloc in recent years. Even as most of the region has suffered prolonged stagnation or serious crisis, East Berlin has posted high growth rates since 1980 and has far outstripped its neighbors in raising living standards and developing such key industries as robotics and electronics.
The East German success has made its streamlined but rigidly centralized system of economic management a counter model for the policies of economic liberalization pursued by countries such as Hungary and China.
In his closing speech to the Congress, Honecker could thus credibly promise that "a German Democratic Republic will be a politically stable and economically efficient state."
While Gorbachev's praise for the economic results here indicated he is ready to accept that assurance, the price of stability is likely to be continuing differences between Moscow and East Berlin over substance as well as style. Although he played down East Germany's foreign policy agenda during Gorbachev's visit, Honecker made clear at the congress his hopes of pursuing closer ties with West Germany and "a return to detente" in Europe despite a recent increase in Soviet-U.S. tensions.
The East German leaders, like others in Eastern Europe, also appear unlikely to embrace fully Gorbachev's initiative for a unified East Bloc drive to match the technological revolution in the West and radically increase the productivity and efficiency of industry.
The East Germans, a diplomat said, "share the misgivings of everyone about pulling economic relations tighter. They will not want to subordinate their plans to some kind of common effort because they're afraid of being reduced to the speed of the slowest partner.