Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble in Eastern Europe. Economic difficulties, disillusionment with reform prompt protests
Take economic distress. Add high expectations about the Soviet reforms. And stir up deception about the results. This recipe is now rocking Eastern Europe.
After Polish police broke up strikes in six Silesian coal mines, the government strategy of intimidating and isolating workers occupying factories has pushed the worker revolt close to collapse. But reports remain sketchy from Poland, and standoffs persist around the key Baltic shipyards and at other Silesian mines.
Poland is not alone. In Hungary, several hundred coal miners occupied their mine this week near the southern city of Pecs. Although small in size, the strike was large in symbolism: it represented the first independent labor action since the crushed 1956 Hungarian revolution.
Czechoslovakia also experienced a watershed event. Some 10,000 people demonstrated Sunday in Prague to mark the 20th anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Aug. 20, 1968. It was the biggest sign of public defiance since the intervention.
Although the three protests obviously were of a different scale, reflecting varied levels of confrontation, they each represented unprecedented spontaneous outbursts of discontent. A few weeks ago, Polish trade union activists predicted a quiet summertime vacation, while Czechoslovak dissidents said they planned to pass the anniversary weekend at their country homes.
``I really didn't expect this,'' said Milos Hajek, a spokesman for the Charter 77 human rights group after the Prague demonstrations.
If the protests' size was surprising, the roots of popular discontent long had been developing. An unspoken contract was struck in the 1970s: The state would provide rising living standards in exchange for political calm. Economic difficulties destroyed that deal in the 1980s. Inflation is soaring in Poland, real incomes are declining in Hungary, and even the once comfortable Czechoslovak economy is stagnating.
``I can't predict when the explosion will come,'' Bogdan Lis, a Solidarity leader said last month. ``But all the ingredients are present.''
Price increases on basic goods provided the spark for Polish miners. New income taxes, which reduced the value of hard-earned bonuses, angered Hungarian miners. And while no specific economic measure provoked Czechoslovaks, long-cosseted workers now are being told that they must work harder - and that they will not see the benefits of their effort for years to come.
This pain is the price of perestroika (restructuring). While preaching openness at home, the reform-minded Soviet leader, has kept silent on important issues to Eastern Europeans. This has fueled frustration.
Czechoslovaks and Hungarians have received no apology for the Soviet invasions of 1956 and 1968, while Poles have not gained any recognition for their banned independent union Solidarity. During his trip to Poland last month, the Soviet leader did not mention the independent trade union.
``Gorbachev's visit dissipated our illusions,'' Solidarity leader Konrad Bielinski said in Paris this week. ``Instead of bringing change to Poland, he privileged calm.''
The Soviet leader's problem is that there will be no calm in the East bloc until these difficult issues are resolved. Hungarian leader Karoly Grosz predicts more labor conflicts as his government moves to shut down aging, unprofitable factories and mines. Czechoslovak leader Milos Jakes meanwhile argues that his country's version of perestroika must be instituted at a slow pace in order to avoid open social conflicts.
These different attitudes reflect different political strategies - and different dangers. In Hungary, where communists still enjoy some trust, officials negotiated with miners and agreed to exclude them from the controversial new tax. In Czechoslovakia and Poland, where governments are discredited, police were deployed.
Discontent in Hungary and Czechoslovakia still has not focused into a powerful movement like in Poland. A gulf separates intellectuals who want to take action and workers who remain passive. After the unpopular taxes were repealed, the striking Hungarian miners went back to work. Research workers in Budapest formed an independent trade union this spring, but the idea has not caught on among blue-color workers. At a locomotive factory last May, workers expressed scorn for their striking Polish counterparts.
``The Poles are just lazy,'' one worker said. ``We want to work.''
Czechoslovak demonstrators formed no organization to voice their demands. Once the police intervened, the protesters vanished back into anonymity.
``People are losing their fear to speak out,'' explains Charter 77 Activist Petr Uhl. ``But it is a slow process.''
In contrast, Polish workers show few hesitations in standing up and voicing their discontent. And while economic problems may motivate them, their demands center on politics, the restoration of Solidarity. If painful sacrifices are necessary, the are not willing to trust Mr. Gorbachev's good words to guarantee that their efforts are not wasted, only an independent trade union.
``For Gorbachev's reforms to work in Poland, he needs Solidarity,'' comments Bronislaw Geremek, a senior union adviser. ``Solidarity is the only organization which can make the workers accept perestroika.''