Soviet dictator Josef Stalin created the system. In 1949, in an effort to integrate the economy of the Soviet Union with its newly acquired satellite states in Eastern Europe, Stalin created Comecon, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. Since then, the Soviet-led trade alliance has drawn up five-year plans that dictated what the member states would produce and where to sell their goods—with little regard for the market forces of supply and demand. But the monumental upheavals that have shaken Communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe in recent months brought new faces to the 45th Comecon conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, last week. And one after another, the new delegates denounced Comecon. They argued that its inflexibility has paralysed com-
petition and brought the economies of Eastern Europe close to ruin. “A 40-year period is coming to an end,” Bulgarian Premier Georgi Atanasov declared. “This meeting marks a real new start with new rules of the game.”
At the end of the two-day meeting, Comecon delegates agreed to reform the alliance radically. But the 10 members—the Soviet Union, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Cuba, Vietnam and Mongolia—remained divided over the pace of change. Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland pressed for rapid reforms that would essentially dissolve the organization and create a free trading bloc similar to the European Community. Soviet officials counselled a more cautious approach. In the end, members agreed to form a special commission to draw up proposals for reform “in the shortest possible time.”
The Soviets, however, did advocate rapid currency reforms. They said that members, who now trade among themselves with socalled transferable rubles, a currency that is worthless outside Comecon, should begin trad-
ing in convertible currencies, including dollars, by 1991. That drew a cold reception from Eastern Europeans. The Soviet Union sells oil and gas, which are instantly marketable at world prices. But many of its allies export poorly made manufactured goods that would earn low prices on the world market. The Soviet plan, said one Czechoslovakian delegate, would be a “disaster” if it took effect next year.
Still, Czechoslovakian delegates expressed exasperation that other reforms would be delayed until after the commission presents its report later this year. Comecon’s needs are evident, said Czechoslovakian Finance Minister Vaclav Klaus. “It is a return to the market and normal international trade,” be declared. Despite the disagreements within the alliance, it was clear that one of Stalin’s most enduring economic legacies is destined for transformation.
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