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A Squeeze on East Europe

WHILE the world's attention has been riveted on the Mideast, a creeping counterrevolution is underway in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev's political and economic reform program has stalled, and the ramifications will be felt throughout the former East bloc. Openness and restructuring are no longer Moscow's goals: crackdowns and restrictions on freedom have become the norm as the recent violence in Lithuania and Latvia demonstrates. If the West can't support Baltic independence, at least it should take a stand to ensure that democracy and independence will not be rolled back across Eastern Europe. There is a significant potential threat to the new democracies of Eastern Europe. These threats may not be primarily military in nature. Instead, the Kremlin's weapons are more likely to be economic: the imposition of an economic blockade or the withholding of energy supplies. Eastern Europe remains heavily dependent on the USSR for oil provisions and trading networks. It may take years to switch to alternative sources and markets.

Reversals in the USSR could also give inspiration to communists, particularly in the Balkans where their hold on power has not been completely severed. A hard-line Kremlin coup may encourage them to stall or sabotage the democratization process. Under the cover of both the Gulf crisis and Soviet repression, the Yugoslav regime has increased pressures on the pro-independence Slovenian and Croatian governments, and seems poised for its own crackdown. Eastern Europe could also confront a massive influx of Soviet refugees. Such nightmare scenarios could further destabilize the region.

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The new East European governments perceive a growing threat. Poland's Foreign Minister Krzysztof Skubiszewski has voiced concern that ``the Soviet crisis could lead to a wave of refugees and to disruptions by armed groups in the frontier areas.'' An adviser to President Lech Walesa expressed worry that while world attention was focused on the Gulf, the Soviet military might try to reestablish control in the region. Fear of Soviet retaliation has prevented the Poles from taking more forthright diplomatic action in support of the Baltics.

Hungary's ruling party, the Democratic Forum, has expressed strong apprehensions that the USSR was seeking to ``turn back the process of democratization.'' The opposition Alliance of Free Democrats described the Lithuanian crackdown as a flashback to 1956, when Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian revolution: ``The USSR is again using the background of a world crisis to divert attention from its military moves.'' Bulgaria's democratic coalition, the Union of Democratic Forces, declared that the events were a ``relapse into Stalinism, a threat to democratic developments in Eastern Europe and a risk for Gorbachev's authority as an initiator of perestroika.''

Fears have also been voiced about Soviet troops still stationed in the region, and the renewed assertiveness of Red Army commanders. Czechoslovakia's Deputy Interior Minister Jan Ruml warned that the government is watching for ``possible sudden activation of forces of the former totalitarian regime.'' The Polish authorities have expressed concerns over the movement of Soviet troops withdrawing through Polish territory. Czechoslovakia has speeded up negotiations on abolishing the Warsaw Pact military structure, and other East European governments are likely to follow suit. The West should be prepared to find itself confronted by six countries clamoring for entry into NATO or some new European security structure as protection against Soviet domination.

Western interest in the region peaked after the wave of peaceful revolutions. Because of global politics and economic recession, the area is again experiencing serious neglect. These countries, however, are still in the early stages of constructing pluralistic democracies and productive market economies. Some states, particularly in the Balkans, may confront severe ethnic conflicts and social unrest which could prove more than they can handle alone.

The West must undertake more meaningful actions to reinforce the democratic and free market process in Eastern Europe, and help ensure that the region remains shielded from Soviet turmoil. First, a complete and unconditional Soviet troop withdrawal from the region must be guaranteed in all arms control negotiations. Second, we must send a signal to Moscow that any moves to limit East European independence will have severe repercussions. Third, much of the aid earmarked for the Soviet regime should be redirected to Eastern Europe. Such assistance will no doubt be squandered and mismanaged in the unreformed Soviet economy. But more substantial aid and investment to countries which have made firm commitments to democracy and capitalism will strengthen their position.

In initiating these steps, Washington would prove to be as effective a leader in the process of European integration as in the coalition against Iraqi aggression.

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