Even in the era of glasnost, it was a controversial assertion. In a speech to Communist party members at a congress in early 1986, less than a year after he took power, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made his first public reference to relations with other socialist countries. Declared Gorbachev: “We do not see the diversity of our movement as a synonym for disunity, much as unity has nothing in common with uniformity—or the striving of any party to have a monopoly over what is right.” That remark, from the leader of a nation that has intervened militarily over the years to put down internal uprisings in allied Communist countries—East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968— was greeted skeptically by many observers. Declared one Moscow-based Western diplomat: “At the time, it sounded like pie-in-the-sky nonsense.” But, he added, “today, it is a little more possible to believe him.”
Troops: After three years of life under Gorbachev, Soviet relations with other Eastern Bloc countries have become a curious blend of dependence and suspicion. The Soviet Union remains the largest trading partner—and consumer market—of each of the other six Eastern Bloc countries. At the same time, Moscow’s influence in the region is diminishing as a result of new Soviet policies emphasizing increased internal production. But while the so-called Soviet satellites are allowed increasing control of their internal politics, an estimated 610,000 Soviet troops
their internal politics, an estimated 610,000 Soviet troops are still stationed in all of those nations except Romania. And, despite the apparent strength of the Warsaw Pact, many Soviet officers privately doubt whether other Eastern European troops would be loyal to them in battle. That ambivalence is reflected in the attitude of average Soviet citizens toward their allied European neighbors. Many Soviets line up for hours at shops when such highly sought-after items as Bulgarian apple and tomato juice, Hungarian chickens and Polish leather products are available. In public, Soviet officials treat their counterparts from Eastern European countries with elaborate politeness, sometimes beginning and ending the same sentence with the word tonarisch (comrade). But Eastern Bloc diplomats, journalists and business executives, like their Western counterparts, are obliged to live in apartment blocks that are reserved for foreigners, surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by police sentries. And privately, many Soviets look upon other Eastern Europeans
with disdain, claiming that any successes experienced by them result from Soviet generosity.
Lever: Until recently, that generosity was a unifying force. From the early 1970s, the Soviets exported oil and gas to their allies under long-term contracts at lower prices than those available from non-bloc countries—a practice estimated to have cost Moscow more than $140 billion in subsidies during the 15 years through 1984. As well, because Eastern European money, including the Russian ruble, cannot be converted into other foreign currencies, it was easier for Eastern Bloc countries to deal with one another. Now, a decline in world oil prices, coupled with an end to Moscow’s export subsidies, has removed an important Soviet economic lever with its neighbors.
But the Kremlin will not likely relinquish its role as
the dominant decision-making force of Eastern Europe. Some observers say that Gorbachev’s present policy of noninterference arises largely from his preoccupation with severe domestic problems. And that policy has yet to be tested seriously by any official defiance of communist doctrine in the satellites.
Class: Indeed, Gorbachev’s conservative second-incommand, Yegor Ligachev, warned in an Aug. 5 speech to party members in Gorky that “new thinking” could undermine the communist tradition of basing foreign policy on class interests and “sow confusion among our friends abroad.” He condemned strikes and demonstrations. Still, in a speech last year, Ligachev declared: “It used to be said that the orchestra was conducted by Moscow, and that everybody else listened. That is no longer the case.” For the residents of other Eastern European countries, that is a novel—and most welcome—refrain.
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