WARSAW -- In the past four months, free elections have dramatically transformed Eastern Europe, largely removing the totalitarian manacles that bound together six Warsaw Pact countries for more than four decades and eroding the foundation of a seventh state, the multinational Yugoslav federation.

More than 116 million people are finally free to march off in directions defined not by Moscow, not by Marx, but by their own elected governments. Yet the frequently dissonant music to which the new governments now are marching sounds oddly familiar. Much of it was composed long before the postwar division of Europe.

The season of the ballot in Eastern Europe has demonstrated how little almost 45 years of force-fed communism have altered national character, resolved ethnic conflicts or fostered political development.

East European voters are reclaiming their past -- or in some countries, such as Romania, succumbing to it. Elections have split the "bloc" along old fault lines -- into two distinct regions with profoundly different political traditions, conflicting cultural values and divergent futures.

To the north, under the influence of democratic traditions forged by the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, are Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and the two most northerly republics of Yugoslavia, Slovenia and Croatia. (East Germany, a postwar fiction that will soon cease to exist as it becomes united with West Germany, is no longer a part of the equation.)

To the south, under the influence of authoritarian traditions forged by Turkish rule and abetted by the Orthodox Church, is a Balkan region -- Romania, Bulgaria and the rest of Yugoslavia, dominated by the republic of Serbia.

Events of the past week have underlined the opposite directions in which the two regions seem to be heading.

In the Romanian capital, vigilante miners used clubs and iron bars to defend the newly elected government against anti-government protesters who denounced it as a quasi-Communist successor to the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. Western governments, in response, threatened to cut off foreign aid and investment.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Hungary, Budapest was swarming with Western tourists and the International Monetary Fund, the money-lending arm of Western capitalism, was congratulating the new government for its free-market principles and making friendly sounds about concessional loans.

In Bulgaria, an opposition party promising rapid Western-style reforms suffered a crushing defeat in elections won by a revamped Communist Party headed by holdovers from a more repressive era. But on the same day, election results in Czechoslovakia showed a reform movement trouncing the Communists.

In the Yugoslav republic of Serbia, the only part of Eastern Europe where a Communist leader still publicly applauds the virtues of centralized, one-party rule, baton-wielding police waded into a crowd of about 1,000 anti-Communist demonstrators. On the same day here in Warsaw, where Western visitors line up for audiences with Polish leaders, the World Bank rewarded the government's "shock therapy" economic program with a $300 million loan.

The top-down system of bureaucratic dictatorship that went by the name of communism has been all but obliterated in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Since the early Middle Ages, these nations have drawn their religious, political and cultural models from Western and Central Europe.

If anything, Soviet domination forced intellectuals and the church to cling more tenaciously than ever to Western values. The collapse of communism left no vacuum of values, but rather permitted these countries to assume peaceably the basic freedoms of speech, assembly and the press that are imbued in Western culture.

In those countries, each month brings stronger connections to Western Europe and the United States -- ties formed by business investment, government loans, booming tourist travel and new telecommunications systems. Currencies in these three countries are moving toward convertibility with the West, while prices also rise toward parity.

In contrast, in Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia, the vertical systems of bureaucratic control remain more or less in place. Human liberties, although more prevalent than in previous years, have taken only shallow root in societies that remain riddled with fear.

There has not been a wholesale change of governing philosophy, economic principles or senior-level leadership. Indeed, elections suggest that a majority of people in the region are skeptical of too much Western-style change.

In Romania, senior officials who once worked for the former Ceausescu dictatorship have been chosen -- in elections marred by a weak opposition and widespread violence against opposition parties -- to run the government. Many former officials have stayed on in the military and the secret police.

Serbia, Yugoslavia's largest republic, has yet to schedule free elections. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic survives as an old-style Communist, largely by playing to Serbian nationalism -- a pent-up force that had been suppressed by the long dictatorship of Marshal Tito.

Still, there are signals -- in Bulgaria, at least -- that a profound change may be underway. Bulgaria's reform Communist leaders have shown a surprisingly un-Balkan tolerance for loud criticism from the opposition -- and for a highly visible U.S. government role in supporting the opposition.

In part, Bulgaria has no choice but to make new friends. Its longtime benefactor, the Soviet Union, is finally demanding hard currency for fuel and raw materials. A $12 billion debt threatens to bankrupt the government this year unless the West agrees to generous rescheduling. Yet government leaders, while speaking of free-market reform, continue to exercise almost total control over the nation's industry.

The speed with which these Balkan states have distinguished themselves as exceptions to the democratic trend in Eastern Europe can best be understood through the prism of their repressive past.

Balkan history is darkened by grim centuries of exploitative foreign domination and punctuated by episodes of self-rule too brief and too despotic to allow growth of democratic traditions. The Orthodox Church, willing to accept state bans on church involvement in political activity, gave little shelter to Christians who opposed dictatorial rule.

The fundamental event of Balkan history was Turkish occupation. In much of the region, five centuries of Ottoman rule destroyed or corrupted the aristocracy while preventing the rise of a broad merchant or middle class. Instead, these peasant societies developed fierce nationalistic loyalties and an abiding suspicion of urban intellectuals and government in general.

The defeat of the Turks in the 19th century set the stage for Russian czarist domination, then for corrupt and dictatorial rule by hereditary monarchs, for Nazi domination and, finally, for Communist control.

Even the face of communism was different in the Balkans. Whereas party bosses in the north tended to be gray, faceless and interchangeable, Communist bosses in the Balkans -- such as Romania's Ceausescu, Yugoslavia's Tito and Bulgaria's Todor Zhivkov -- fostered cults of personality as they became dictators for life.

Elsewhere in Eastern Europe, prewar history has left a markedly different imprint on post-Communist politics. In Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland, there are uncanny echoes of issues and personalities that preoccupied governments between the First and Second World Wars.

In Hungary, the right-of-center government led by Prime Minister Jozsef Antall came to power by playing openly to nationalist emotions. Since World War I, when Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory and half its population, it has been good politics to hint to Hungarians that someday, somehow, these losses will be made good.

But Antall has moved cautiously. He appears to have no intention of allowing nationalism to antagonize his Romanian, Czechoslovak and Soviet neighbors -- in whose territories about 5 million ethnic Hungarians live -- nor to let it interfere with rebuilding an economy burdened with Eastern Europe's most onerous debt.

After World War I, the best conditions for economic recovery and democratic government were to be found in Czechoslovakia, then the world's seventh-largest industrial power. The same is true now. Because of Czechoslovakia's low foreign debt and skilled industrial work force, free-market reform is likely to be less painful there than anywhere else in Eastern Europe.

Then, as now, a philosopher king presided over the democratic experiment. Thomas G. Masaryk, a professor of philosophy, soothed ethnic conflicts, struggled for regional peace and remained above party strife. President Vaclav Havel, a playwright and heroic dissident, has assumed a leadership position that is similarly conciliatory, stabilizing and Olympian.

But it is here in Poland, Eastern Europe's biggest and most economically ravaged nation, that the historical parallels are most eerie.

Lech Walesa, the indomitable Solidarity trade union leader, has begun to play a populist role that reminds millions of Poles of Jozef Pilsudski, the dictatorial independence fighter who kept the Russians at bay and led Poland through the tumultuous 1920s and '30s.

Like Pilsudski, Walesa declines political office and grumbles jealously when others exercise power. Like Pilsudski, Walesa turns against old colleagues and issues periodic demands for government by decree. Like Pilsudski, Walesa commands a populist respect that enables him -- and only him -- to bridge the gulf between the governing elite and the workers.

As Poland pursues an economic reform program that crimps living standards for workers, Walesa's support has become more and more crucial to the survival of the Solidarity-led government. So far, Walesa has been willing to use his populist magic to help the government settle potentially disastrous strikes.

How far Walesa will follow Pilsudski's example is unclear. But the question is important. For Pilsudski used his hold on workers to engineer a coup that left all power in his hands.

Amid East Europe's post-electoral landscape, one lingering question is whether the communist legacy has eroded self-reliance. Socialism guaranteed everyone a job and subsidized living standards. Economic reforms have not been in place long enough to provide an answer, but some believe individual habits formed during years of repression will be hard to change.

"All of us have become accustomed to the totalitarian system, accepted it as an unalterable fact of life and, therefore, kept it running," Havel has said. "None of us is merely a victim of it, because all of us helped create it together."

Date of elections: March 18

Results: The Alliance for Germany, a conservative grouping of three parties favoring speedy unification with West Germany, won 48.1% of the vote for parliament. The alliance was backed by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

HUNGARY

Date of elections: March 25, April 8

Results: The anti-Communist, nationalistic Democratic Forum won nearly 43 percent of the vote for parliament. The Socialist Party, successor to the Communists, won just 8.5 percent.

YUGOSLAVIA

Slovenia

Date of elections: April 8 and 22

Results: Demos, a separatist coalition favoring only nominal ties to Yugoslavia's central government, won 55 percent of the vote for parliament. Reform Communist Milan Kucan won the presidency in a run-off election April 22.

Croatia

Date of elections: April 22 and May 6-7

Results: The Croatian Democratic Union, a center-right nationalist party that favors turning Yugoslavia into a confederation of sovereign states, won a parliamentary majority. Its leader, Franjo Tudjman, won the republic's presidency.

POLAND

Date of elections: May 27

Results: Solidarity, which challenged the Communists for a decade and put together the first non-Communist government in the Soviet Bloc, overwhelmed all other parties in Poland's first completely free elections in a half century.

CZECHOSLOVAKIA

Date of elections: June 8-9

Results: Civic Forum, the anti-Communist movement led by acting President Vaclav Havel, and its Slovak sister party, Public Against Violence, won about 46 percent of the vote for parliament. The Communists finished a distant second with 13.6 percent.

BULGARIA

Date of elections: June 10

Results: The former Communists, now called the Socialists, won majorities in the voting for parliament in nearly every section of the country. The opposition Union of Democratic Forces, won more than 50% of the vote only in the capital, Sofia.

ROMANIA

Date of elections: May 20

Results: The National Salvation Front, a coalition led by onetime high-ranking Communist officials, won a 66 percent majority of the vote for parliament. The front's leader, acting president Ion Iliescu, won 83 percent of the vote in the presidential balloting.

Compiled by James Schwartz -- The Washington Post

SOURCES: The Washington Post, Associated Press, Facts on File