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Can Gorbachev's economic reforms take hold in Eastern Europe?

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Time will have to show how Mikhail Gorbachev fares in his efforts to shake the Soviet Union into economic readiness for the next century. But a visible achievement so far is the way he has shaken the communist East Europeans into a frenzy of debate over the need for reform. Reform in Eastern Europe wears a patchwork coat.

There is Romania, where leader Nicolae Ceausescu rules with little apparent regard for economic reality.

There are the late-comers like Czechoslovakia, whose leaders have yet to recover from the fright of the 1968 reform movement. Or the Bulgarians who, about that time, flirted with reform and made some promising management innovations, but then settled for safer ideology instead. In each case, the economies stagnated accordingly.

And there are the already fully committed reformers. The Hungarians launched their New Economic Mechanism 20 years ago, but world recession and Moscow's conservatism prompted them to slow the pace of reform during the Brezhnev period. With Mr. Gorbachev at the helm in Moscow, it is again full steam ahead in Budapest. Hungary is even going so far as to eliminate subsidies for lame-duck state enterprises and to introduce personal income tax.

The Poles would take bold steps, too, if Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski's commitment to reform carried enough conviction with former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and the workers to fire a national sense of common effort. So far, that is not likely.

Everywhere the pigeons of false economics have come home to roost, and with them a host of political problems that must also be acknowledged if meaningful economic reform is to have a chance.

The problem is pretty uniform whether for Eastern Europe, or for communism's superpowers, the Soviet Union and China. Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas, who offered that observation in a recent talk, is not the only experienced observer to see that the same dilemma increasingly confronts communism and reform, whether it be in his own avant-garde Belgrade or in Peking.

The essential changes in China's illogical price system are already encountering opposition (as in all the communist states) from the conservatives as well as consumers. Consumers are also unhappy about the move to raise rents for urban housing. Low rents - a mere percentage point or two of earnings - were among the myths of early communist rule everywhere. When the Yugoslavs (and later, others) realized these subsidized rents left no margin for upkeep or new building, they raised rents and there was an angry public outcry.

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