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East's dissident heroes: lost without their enemy

Central Europe's Communist regimes feared dissident intellectuals with good reason: They helped push the Warsaw Pact nations toward revolution five years ago. But their egalitarian philosophy clashes with laissez-faire capitalism, and their moral force is waning when it's needed most.

REVOLUTIONS have a way of treating their makers harshly. Events can gobble up - or disillusion - those who initiate them.

It was that way for Robespierre in the French Revolution and also for the Bolsheviks who carried out the Communist coup in 1917 only to fall in Stalin's purges.

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The same is now happening to the dissident intellectuals who played a leading role in dismantling the Soviet empire in Central Europe. Even for the few still in high-profile positions, such as Czech President Vaclav Havel, the transformation has proved rocky.

In the five years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, most prominent Communist-era dissident intellectuals have disappeared from the political stage that they so conspicuously took to in 1989. Unlike their predecessors, today's Central European revolutionaries escaped from the fray with their lives. But the bitter experience seems to have sapped their desire to speak out.

Their departure has left a potentially harmful void in Central Europe as it strains to transform from communism to market democracy.

``Intellectuals played a major role in the collapse of communism and their action and ideas are just as necessary in the construction of democracy,'' says Jeff Goldfarb, a sociologist at the New School in New York City and a specialist on intellectuals in Central Europe today.

After World War II, the Communists co-opted all leading intellectual institutions in order to buttress totalitarian rule. The repression inadvertently catalyzed a unique hybrid - the dissident-intellectual.

Such a person might not have the same liberal education or creative talent of his or her counterpart among Western intellectuals. But that wasn't so important. Above all, dissident intellectuals needed the willingness to publicly oppose the system when such action meant virtual career suicide, and often a jail term.

Dissident intellectuals provided the only domestically produced alternative point of view to that of Communists. Relatively small organizations, such as the Czechoslovakia's Charter '77 human rights group, commanded considerable attention.

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But the end of the cold war has shifted the philosophical base underneath these intellectuals, who now must refocus their energies from communism to the future. Many observers say a Communist comeback in Central Europe is now impossible, but the end of history is nowhere in sight: It is likewise impossible to predict what kind of economic and political systems the region will end up with.

So far, the countries that have made the largest strides toward reform - the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland - are gravitating toward the liberal Western European model. Meanwhile, the nations that have lagged behind, particularly Slovakia and Romania, seem headed for a more authoritarian style of democratic government.

But all Central European nations lack to a degree the respect for law that supports all civic societies. Disregard for rule of law may be communism's most damaging legacy.

As long as the rule of law has not sunk deep roots in Central Europe, market democratic reforms still can take unpleasant twists and turns. Nationalism menaces Central Europe, as does simmering apathy with democratic process. Ukraine, for example, still has not filled its parliament from elections held in March because voter turnout has not reached the required 50 percent in several constituencies.

Needs of the hour

According to Mr. Goldfarb and other Central Europe observers, it is in this arena - the promotion of civic society - that intellectuals have something to offer. ``Their future role isn't a heroic one, it's more pragmatic. It means expanding the capacity of public life,'' Goldfarb says. ``Talk, based on principle, is a key.''

In theory, it all may sound easy. But it is not so simple in practice. Naive visions in the months following 1989 have largely discredited the intelligentsia, many of whom have withdrawn from public in disappointment. And those intellectuals that remain active are having a hard time commanding attention.

The Czech Republic, the Central European state that has enjoyed the most reform success, is a case in point. The Prague government is led by Vaclav Klaus, a financial-sector technocrat whose reform mantra is clear: Create the conditions for a market economy to function normally, and the rest, including formation of a civic society, will take care of itself.

Such a laissez-faire philosophy irks the Czech Republic's playwright-president Vaclav Havel, one of the few Central European intellectuals still in a position of authority. Benign neglect, Mr. Havel reasons, will institutionalize societal problems and stunt the growth of a civic society.

``If one of the goals of the November [1989] revolution was the restoration of democracy, we can say with our consciences clean, that we fulfilled this goal,'' Havel said in a recent speech.

Yet, the Czech president continued, ``we have no reason to rejoice about the spiritual and moral state of our society.... It is not enough to rely on the automatic effect of a stabilized political and economic system.''

As examples, Havel cited soaring crime rates and ethnic hostility, especially against the Gypsy minority. A visitor can see what Havel means by trying to hail a taxi in downtown Prague, where cabbies are notorious for mafia-like racketeering. Fares often must be negotiated, and the the price is usually inversely proportional to the rider's knowledge of Czech.

Despite the problems, Havel's warnings seem to fall flat. Citizens see him as out of touch. And fellow intellectuals, too, hold the president in contempt for presiding over the 1993 partition of Czechoslovakia. In the battle for Czechs' political loyalty, opinion surveys show the population strongly backs Prime Minister Klaus, whose government is the only one in Central Europe that has endured since 1989, surviving the peaceful partition of Czechoslovakia in 1993.

Central Europeans in other countries complain of troubles that, in many cases, are more serious than those in the Czech Republic: organized crime, shady privatization deals, and government manipulation of the media. While such problems are probably most acute in Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria, no nation is invulnerable. In Poland, for example, shop owners in Warsaw's Old Town shut their stores in August to protest a lack of police action against racketeering.

In every Central European nation, dissident-intellectual arguments aimed at bolstering ethics amid such tumult are mostly inaudible, or ignored.

``Their leadership exhibited classical problems of intellectuals in power,'' Goldfarb says. ``They were prone to moralizing too much, viewing politics abstractly, posing theoretical solutions to problems that needed immediate, practical solutions.''

Incomplete resumes

In some ways the dissident-intellectuals shouldn't bear full responsibility. Considered the only ones with principles unsullied by Communism, intellectuals assumed top government jobs almost by default in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. But they were unprepared for the task. Under Communism, many of the new rulers had languished in prison or in menial labor jobs. Few had administrative experience.

Hungary may best illustrate the self-destruction of an intellectual-led government. Jozsef Antall's Cabinet, which took over in 1990 elections shortly after communism's collapse, was full of historians whose development blueprint was rooted in an idyllic perception of Hungary during the interwar years of 1919 to 1939.

At first, things went well and Hungary became a magnet for foreign investment. Even before 1989, the reform-minded nation was the home of ``goulash communism,'' and was considered the most economically advanced of all Warsaw Pact countries. The dismantling of Hungary's barbed-wire border with Austria in May 1989 set off much of the upheaval soon to spread throughout the region. Free elections followed less than a year later.

But the new government's economic inexperience eventually began to show, and it became entangled in nationalist disputes with neighboring Slovakia and Romania over the rights of ethnic Hungarian minorities there. Domestic reforms then faltered, pinching Hungarians. The result: Retooled Communists, led by Gyula Horn, returned to power in elections earlier this year.

Intellectual-led governments met similar fates in Poland and Lithuania, giving way to restyled apparatchiks. Ideology turned out to be not as important to voters as the ability to administrate.

In other Central European nations - particularly Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria - prominent figures from past Communist regimes merely changed images and never really relinquished power. And the Czech government's longevity is partially due to Prime Minister Klaus, who eased dissidents out of power - as in the case of former Foreign Minister Jiri Dienstbier - and replaced them with proved administrators.

Coup de grace

Rejection at the ballot box was only the final blow for Central Europe's intelligentsia. They began to fade from politics almost the day that the Berlin Wall fell.

Under Communism, a hatred for the system united dissidents. Once that system was swept away, the revolution's makers splintered into various camps that espoused differing development strategies. And as the struggle for theoretical supremacy unfolded, those whose ideas were discredited fell by the wayside.

The brutality of capitalism intensified disappointment among the intelligentsia. Many dissidents were blind-sided by the market forces unleashed in 1990. Under communism, money meant little, affording them time to consider their theories. But the pressures of a free market left little opportunity to think about free speech. Especially damaging was the state's dwindling ability to subsidize universities and other educational-cultural organizations. Even unjaded intellectuals were forced into more lucrative lines of work.

How long will it take the Central European intelligentsia to recover from the shocks of the past five years? Goldfarb, the sociologist, is optimistic that they will recover quickly.

But a few experts say that Central Europe's intelligentsia, imbued with communist notions of egalitarianism, isn't properly equipped to comprehend the most dangerous forces at work in the region, especially the destructive side of nationalism.

``The intellectuals' task is to provide a systematic and organized discussion about nationalism and thus deprive it of the possibility for spontaneous outbursts,'' says Karel Richter, a retired historian from Prague.

But, Mr. Richter adds, Central European ``intellectuals don't understand the question of national pride.''

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