MARY NEMETH November 26 1990



MARY NEMETH November 26 1990



Almost a year to the day after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the streets of the now-united German capital were in turmoil again last week. But this time, the crowds were not waving national flags or cheering their triumph over tyranny— they were throwing gasoline bombs and metal bars instead. For at least four days, more than 1,000 militant squatters protesting housing shortages fought pitched battles with police in which more than 260 people were injured. “Pigs out,” they shouted, as police arrested nearly 500 of them. German sociologist Wilhelm Heitmeyer said that when young Germans employ peaceful means to point to problems, no one listens. “But when they use violence, the interest grows,” he added. “Politicians must not miss the warning signals.”

In fact, there are warning signs across Eastern Europe that the fragile democracies created in the wake of the 1989 revolutions are in peril as their citizens struggle with unemployment, inflation and crime. Anti-Semitism and extreme nationalism are on the increase as some citizens use their new freedoms to express dislike for minorities. And as their postCommunist governments flounder in their efforts to resurrect free-market economies, Eastern Europeans express growing disillu-

sionment with the process of democratic debate. There may be worse to come. A report by the European Community released last month predicted that Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Czechoslovakia would lose a total of nearly $8 billion this year, and much more in 1991, as a result of rising world oil prices. Said Sárka Grauová, a university student in Prague: “I think we’re in for some years of misery.”

To assess the outlook, Maclean ’s correspondents compiled the following reports on nations in transition:

BULGARIA: Last fall, with the collapse of communism in East Germany, the Bulgarian regime moved quickly to pre-empt pro-democracy unrest. On Nov. 10, reform Communists engineered a palace coup, forcing veteran Communist leader Todor Zhivkov to retire. His replacement, Petar Mladenov, promised political reforms. And in elections on June 10 and 17, Bulgaria became the first country to freely re-elect the Communists, who had renamed themselves the Socialist party.

Observers say that the Socialists won largely because they filled state shops with food and consumer goods in the months leading up to the vote. Since then, they have been unable to maintain that illusion of well-being. The coun-

try now experiences frequent power cuts, and on the dreary streets of the capital, Sofia, food lineups are growing longer. Said one weary housewife of the June vote: “We were tricked.”

Government has been nearly paralysed since the Socialists failed to convince the opposition Union of Democratic Forces to support their economic program. To make matters worse, 16 government MPs defected in early November, and observers say that up to 40 other Socialist members may cross the floor, perhaps depriving the government of its majority.

HUNGARY: On Sept. 10,1989, the reformist Communist regime in Budapest, emboldened by the Solidarity trade union movement’s summer victory in Polish elections, decided to open its fortified border to allow thousands of East German refugees to leave for the West. The ensuing revolutions across Eastern Europe in turn put pressure on the Hungarian government to hold free elections. In a two-stage vote on March 25 and April 8, Hungarians overwhelmingly elected Prime Minister József Antall’s centre-right coalition government.

Because the former Communist regime had already begun to introduce some economic reforms, Hungary is further along the road towards a free market than most of its neigh-

bors. About 1,600 East-West joint ventures operate in the country, and more than 2,000 small businesses have semi-private status. But critics accuse the government of moving too slowly—it has earmarked only 20 of the 2,000 largest state firms for privatization this winter.

Other critics, however, demand that the government exercise even more caution. When Antall imposed a 65-per-cent price increase on gasoline in late October, taxi and truck drivers blockaded bridges and border crossings, forcing the government to back down. And the government’s move to free most prices has led to nearly 30-per-cent inflation. That means that 62-year-old retired laborer Miklós Sebed, for one, who lives on a fixed pension of $75 a month, has been reduced to rummaging through trash bins for stale bread and other scraps. “I don’t know what else to do,” Sebed said last week in Budapest, his shopping bag full of mouldy bread that he said he planned to sell as pig feed for 50 cents. Unable to satisfy both sides in the economic debate, politicians are steadily losing public confidence. Last month,

Antall’s Hungarian Democratic Forum won only 28 per cent of the vote in municipal elections, down from 43 per cent in the national vote.


Even while Bulgaria’s Communists were engineering their palace coup, Czechoslovakia’s hard-line rulers were desperately clinging to power. On Nov. 17, 1989, the government ordered riot police to crack down on several thousand students marching to Prague’s Wenceslas Square. But when rumors spread that one of the students had been killed, hundreds of thousands of students, later joined by workers, took to the streets. The country’s leading dissident, playwright Václav Havel, emerged as the leader of the revolution. After hard-line party leader Milos Jakes resigned, the parliament chose Havel as president. And on June 8 and 9, Havel’s Civic Forum movement, along with its Slovak ally, Public Against Violence, swept national elections.

Portraits of Havel still hang in almost every store and office in the capital and in the smallest countryside pub. But the president owes that continuing popularity in part to what his government has not done. Parliament is still debating a proposal to privatize state firms, and there is almost no private enterprise in Czechoslovakia. As a result, unemployment is still less than one per cent. But that also means that people still line up to buy the same old-fashioned goods in state-run stores.

Recently, however, there have been growing signs of frustration with the government’s slow pace towards reform. A group of Czecho-

slovak students released a statement urging that the Nov. 17 anniversary of the revolution not be celebrated. “We don’t want Communist officials coming out cheering and laughing in our faces,” they wrote. And last month, in a clear shift to the right, Civic Forum elected a new leader, Finance Minister Václav Klaus, an advocate of rapid economic change. Even more ominous for Havel is the explosive issue of Slovak nationalism. Last month, the Slovak republic’s premier warned that separatists, angered by his government’s plans to give the Hungarian minority the right to their own official language, were planning a terror campaign to press for Slovak sovereignty.

GERMANY: The former East Germans have been more fortunate. In July, they forged economic union with the Federal Republic and, on Oct. 3, the two Germanys formally reunited. In the past year, about 200,000 private firms have opened in the east. Still, many easterners

now say that they feel like second-class citizens. Inefficient firms have collapsed in the free market, forcing nearly 500,000 easterners out of work. Analysts say that, by next year, almost half the eastern workforce could be unemployed.

The Bonn government has estimated that it will cost $79 billion a year over the next five years to upgrade the eastern infrastructure and to provide unemployment benefits to the rising tide of jobless people. And just as easterners resent the prosperity of their western cousins, a recent poll by the Bonn-based survey group INFAS found that 63 per cent of western Germans are opposed to higher taxes to subsidize the east’s recovery. “There are walls in some people’s minds,” conceded Berlin Mayor Walter Momper. “Forty years of different systems cannot be overcome overnight.”

ROMANIA: Nowhere in Eastern Europe is democracy more threatened than in Romania. When dictator Nicolae Ceauçescu sent the

Securitate secret police to put down a peaceful protest in the town of Timisoara last December, he provoked a bloody uprising in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people died. Ceau§escu fled the capital on Dec. 22, and the National Salvation Front, a group made up mainly of military officers and former Communists, took power. They executed the dictator and his wife, Elena, on Christmas Day.

The National Salvation Front, led by President Ion Iliescu, won a two-thirds majority in elections on May 20. But its critics accused the government of employing Communist terror tactics in June, when it called on thousands of miners to suppress anti-government protests in the capital. “After the revolution, I was a great hero,” said a 28-year-old engineer who claimed to have shot five Securitate officers during the revolt. “Now, I know I was a fool.”

Meanwhile, mutual suspicion divides Romanians and the 2.5-million-member Hungarian minority. In March, at least five people died in bloody ethnic clashes in Transylvania, a region that has alternated between Hungarian and Romanian rule three times this century.

Bitter debates in parliament have held up economic reform laws. And thousands of intellectuals are trying to leave the country. Application forms for permits to resettle in South Africa now fetch half an average month’s salary on the black market. “It is an obsession with us now,” said Eugen Radu, 34, a comg puter programmer from Bu" charest. There is also wide^ spread commercial theft—at 2 the Dacia car plant in Pite§ti, ~ northwest of Bucharest, workers stole $2.8 million worth of parts this year.

Last week, hundreds of thousands of Romanians took to the streets in 10 cities to demand the resignation of the National Salvation Front— the largest street protests since the December revolution. “Romanians understood they were cheated and humiliated,” student leader Marian Munteanu told a 100,000-strong crowd in Bucharest. “Now, they want truth to come out.”

But there are other Romanians who express a growing nostalgia for authoritarian rule. Insisted Vadim Tudor, editor-in-chief of the fiercely nationalist Romania Mare (Greater Romania) newspaper: “Romania doesn’t need this kind of democracy.” Tudor openly advocates a period of military rule to restore stability. A year after Romanians laid down their lives to fight for freedom, such sentiments represent a dangerous throwback to tyranny.