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In Eastern Europe, Former Dissidents Learn to Wield Power

IT was not an ordinary presidential appearance, nor was it an ordinary president who appeared in the Polish parliament last month. The president was Czechoslovakia's former leading dissident, playwright Vaclav Havel. The parliament was filled with veteran dissidents from the struggle against the communist regime.

It was a meeting between old friends from the political underground in Eastern Europe. The last time they had seen each other had been at their yearly secret meeting in the woods along the border between Poland and Czechoslovakia. After an autumn of revolutionary changes in Eastern Europe, Mr. Havel and his Polish friends suddenly had real power.

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Similar dramatic transformations occurred in other East European nations, from the New Forum in East Germany to the Salvation Front in Romania. The new political leaders - noncommunist or reform communist - could now realize reforms they had earlier seen as necessary.

Eastern Europe today is run largely by political novices. Most of the leaders have had little experience running any large bureaucracy, let alone a government or a country.

It is not that they lack political experience. It is just that their experience is of another kind, acquired during survival in the political underground, secret meetings, jail, and sometimes torture.

The experience of a political dissident is not necessarily good preparation for running a government. Still, because of the collapse of the old Communist regimes, the people are forced to take over and try to make the transition from dissidence to the political establishment, from illegality to legality.

For various reasons, not everyone has managed to make that transition. Some could not cope with a normal political life. Others, although relieved that the nightmare is seemingly over, do not want to get involved again, afraid of being disappointed and hurt once more, or just not having the strength after so many years of hardship and sorrow.

For those who have taken on the responsibility of bringing their nations out of political and economic stagnation, their goals are remarkably similar.

With the possible exception of the Romanian Salvation Front, which so far has sent a murky message on its vision for Romania, they all want democracy, capitalism, and far-reaching individual freedoms.

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Poland and Yugoslavia have even introduced a capitalist crash course, on the suggestion of American economist Jeffrey Sachs, to combat hyperinflation and turn collapsing centralized economies into free-market systems with private ownership.

For the new leadership in Eastern Europe, the goal is to join the new Europe that is quickly taking shape in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet empire.

These leaders look west, but not as far as the United States.

Their eyes often stop in a Germany that will soon be reunified and become the new power center in a new Europe.

At the same time, they do not want to turn their backs on the Soviet Union. They have recommended profound changes in the Soviet-led trade organization Comecon, but they have shown political wisdom by leaving the military cooperation within the Warsaw Pact alone. They do not want to risk any backlash now.

Domestically, the task is also awesome. Not only do they have to rebuild all political structures, or create entirely new ones, but they also have to rebuild their nations' economies. In most of these countries, with the exception of Czechoslovakia, the democratic traditions are almost nonexistent. The prewar democratic and highly industrialized Czechoslovakia plays an important part in the modern history of the nation. Its traditions still are alive and should be an asset in the attempts to re-create the democratic and prosperous period up to World War II.

And none of these countries, except Yugoslavia, have any postwar experience in capitalism and a free-market economy.

Until now, only the Solidarity-led government in Poland has reached power through an election victory. But many, like Havel, see themselves as caretakers, saying that they wish to return to writing plays and teaching history as soon as they can.

That remains to be seen. Maybe they will find their appetite for politics has been whetted.

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