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Reform in Eastern Europe Hews to Historical Patterns

A LOOK at history helps to explain why change came more quickly and more peacefully to the northern countries of Eastern Europe than to Romania. Specialists in Eastern Europe often divide the region into northern and southern tiers.

The northern tier consists of East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Transylvania (in Romania), and the republics of Croatia and Slovenia in Yugoslavia. The southern tier, in the Balkans, is made up of most of Romania, eastern and southern Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Albania.

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Between these tiers runs a key political and religious fault line. The northern tier is Roman Catholic and Protestant and oriented toward the West. The southern tier is Eastern Orthodox, except for Albania and some regions of Yugoslavia, which have majority Muslim populations.

The difference is crucial. Although Rome fell in 410, the Roman Empire lived on in the East at Constantinople (now Istanbul). In Catholic Western Europe, the church played an important role in preserving public order, education, and science.

In the Eastern Empire, which lasted until Constantinople fell in 1453, the church's position was entirely different. It was subservient to the state. With a strong secular authority, there was no need for the church to protect learning or engage in education. Orthodox churches were organized by nation, with services conducted in national languages.

The northern-tier countries maintained their historical ties to the West until after World War II. But in the south, the Ottoman Turkish conquest ushered in a 400-year period of cultural isolation and political-economic stagnation.

On the eve of World War II, the northern tier was industrialized. The southern countries remained largely agrarian.

So it was no surprise that reform came first to the northern-tier countries, with the churches in the forefront of the struggle. In Romania, the spark that lit the explosion that brought down Nicolae Ceausescu resulted from the authorities' attempt to arrest a Hungarian Reformed church minister in Transylvania.

In the Balkan countries, on the other hand, the national Orthodox churches have remained relatively docile in the face of a hostile state. These countries have far less economic development and lower education levels than do nations in the north.

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The results:

Romanian dictator Ceausescu staunchly resisted reform and maintained a Stalinist police state until his overthrow.

Albania continues to chart a classical Stalinist course, while railing against Moscow, Beijing, and Belgrade for heresy.

Bulgaria reforms by doing whatever Moscow does.

Yugoslavia sees continuing conflict between the liberal Catholic republics of Croatia and Slovenia and conservative Orthodox Serbia.

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