After the party: thinking the unthinkable in Soviet bloc. Moscow's new approach suggests freedom to pursue links to West
After the feast comes the reckoning. The great Moscow party is history. Now one waits to see how the bills it presented as a political turning point for communism are to be honored - by East Europeans and the Soviets. What seems clear is that Moscow's usually subservient allies are now to be very largely out on their own.
In place of ``big brother,'' they must contend with a new school of Soviet leadership - one not caring too much what they do or how they do it, so long as it broadly suits the ``socialist community.''
Pre-Gorbachev, the economic relationship was steadily tilted to Soviet benefit. For example, oil - once a reward for ideological fidelity - became hard-nosed business linked increasingly to world market prices.
Soon after taking office in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev sounded a new approach: While economic relations would be strictly business, he wanted new kinds of political relationships with Moscow's allies.
At last month's Communist Party conference, he boldly drafted a sweeping blueprint for the rebirth of stagnant societies and economies, a precondition (as he sees it) for the credibility of communist government. Moreover, in a dramatic departure from the past, he fully acknowledged national political responsibility as part of the package.
For Mr. Gorbachev, reform is a fact of life. For East Europeans, views on reform vary between maximalist and minimalist, or even those (Romania, East Germany) that flatly reject curbing the state's controlling role.
How much everything can still turn on Gorbachev's domestic success, however, was reflected by Hungary's government newspaper, Magyar Hirlap. ``Following Khrushchev's 1956 congress,'' it said, ``Soviet society missed its opportunity for consistent reform. Here is a new chance. It would be a sin if it failed to take it this time.''
A ``sin,'' too, for Hungary, which certainly lost no time following through with its own perestroika (restructuring) program adopted in May.
Gorbachev has already penciled in new elections to party organizations and constitutional amendments for this year. But he will do well to match Budapest's pace.
Hungary was already launched on onerous but essential tax reform. (Gorbachev has yet to look at that issue.) It has boldly raised prices again on alcohol and tobacco. It has just become the first communist state to capitalize on the European Community (EC) accord with Comecon, permitting bilateral ``favored trade'' agreements between the East-bloc trading group's individual members and the EC. Another first, a realistic business law likely to attract Western investors, is on the way.
Hungary's new leader, Karoly Grosz, is headed for even greater openings to the West. Assuming success, this would not only secure the technology needed to make his economy effective, but also shift the balance of Hungary's trade with the East bloc more to the West. It could make Hungary a tempting example for increasing Western interests in Eastern Europe.
There were times when Hungarian reformers had to adjust to disapproval in Moscow. Nothing like that now seems to figure either in Hungarian minds or Gorbachev's. A new ``live and let live'' attitude is implicit in today's Soviet approach toward allies.
New Soviet attitudes seem to suggest that Mr. Grosz can pursue his growing openings to the West without necessarily hurting the Warsaw Pact. ``It is the Hungarians' business,'' a Soviet observer at the Hungarian party conference said. And if the Soviet Union loses trade to the West, he said, ``It will be up to us and to Comecon - won't it? - to be more competitive ourselves.''
Vistas of a future Europe
This new Soviet attitude presents an extraordinary long-term vista of a future Europe. Hungary has a totally free, open border with neighboring Austria. Austria is renewing an old bid to enter the Common Market, vetoed by two previous Soviet leaders as infringing the neutrality stipulated for ending Soviet military occupation in 1955. Gorbachev will take a more realistic view.
At the time, Austria had to be content with the lesser European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Similarly, Hungary is now looking to strengthen its ties with the West through membership in this organization. EFTA membership for Hungary could, in time, be a doorway to a more substantial relationship with the EC.
Bilateral accords (such as Hungary's) could bring all the East Europeans close to the Western economic community. Czechoslovakia is, of sheer economic necessity, being nudged by its reformers in that direction.
Gorbachev's ``revolution'' has thrown old East-bloc relationships into a melting pot in a way potentially historic for Europe as a whole. Moscow, it seems, will not impede the bold and the brave.
Hungary, a Warsaw Pact member, in the Common Market? Out of the question, one hears. But such things, once just as remote, are happening every day in Gorbachev's world: Talks are now going on between Moscow and Budapest for a unilateral Soviet Army withdrawal from Hungary. These troops were due to go after the 1955 pullout from Austria. But they were used to crush the Hungarian uprising a year later and so stayed on.
Soviet proposals of mutual East-West withdrawals are a complex matter of balance between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. But Hungary is less strategically important than Poland or East Germany.
A unilateral pullout from Hungary would be good public relations. It would also be a momentous demonstration of new Kremlin thinking under Gorbachev about ``noninterference,'' with all that could portend for East Europeans and some ``one Europe'' of the future.