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From The Indian Express

Of rumbling and grumbling

By V. Venkatesan

TWENTY YEARS after Soviet-led Warsaw Pact tanks rolled in to trample the "Prague Spring" reform movement, some 10,000 Czechs marched through the streets of the capital city last month urging the Russians to make haste and depart -- or, as they phrased it succinctly, to "go home".

In neighbouring Poland, coal miners and dock workers in close to a dozen towns have been on strike for over two weeks now, demanding pay hikes and official recognition of the Solidarity trade union movement.

More than a handful of nationalities in the East Bloc have in the past weeks demanded independence or more autonomy.

Expressions of pluralism and official tolerance in the era of glasnost? Or the manifestation of cracks in the Soviet foundation in Eastern Europe? Either way, the echoes of the rumbling of tanks in Prague and the grumbling of the disgruntled elsewhere are bound to be heard in far-off Moscow.

There is an inescapable irony about the presence of some 80,000 Soviet toops in Czechoslovakia. Two decades after the Soviets trundled in to "deweed" their backyard of the blossoms of that spring, the same political ideas and economic forces that marked Alexander Dubcek's experiments in "socialism with a human face" are taking root again -- in Moscow. And while Dubcek, after a short stint in the Ministry of Forests, mopes in the political wilderness, Mikhail Gorbachev struts about, propagating perestroika. The invaders and the invaded have, by a curious twist of history, swapped political roles.

History of sorts appears to be repeating itself in Poland. Coal miners and dock workers who went on strike in 1980 and formed Solidarity have again struck work -- this time demanding better pay and recognition of the free trade union banned after martial law was declared in December 1981. The miners' strike, in particular, is sure to prove crippling. Coal is Poland's leading export, providing essential revenues for servicing the country's $39-b debt.

The Jaruzelski regime, after initially trying to break the strike with force, has agreed to negotiate with the agitationists. It has, however, termed the demand for Solidarity's recognition as "unrealistic", and has refused to hold talks with Lech Walesa, the charismatic leader of Solidarity and 1983 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Walesa, a walrus- mustachioed electrician at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, fairly electrifies the masses, symbolising as he does their collective aspirations. Any attempt to sideline him must only be fated to fail. The Polish government may yet try what it did to break a less serious strike in April-May last -- intimidate strikers, buy off a few, and isolate the diehard unionists. But even if it does succeed in quelling the present unrest, its only reward would be to wait for the next one: Solidarity, somothered above ground, lives below -- in the coal mines and in the minds of men. It could smoulder for years and flare up some day, leaving the winds of change, should they blow, to fan the flames.

How long can Moscow remain immune to the goings-on in Eastern Europe? It is more than likely that the current unrest will be put down, obviating any Soviet action. But should the clamour for reforms get out of hand, and the Brezhnev Doctrine -- the principle that the Soviet Union has the right to enforce socialist orthodoxy in Eastern Europe -- be applied, it would be bad news for perestroika and worse for Gorbachev. There are, after all, still some conservatives within the Kremlin who are not entirely sold on reforms -- the name of Yegor Ligachev readily springs to mind. In fact, it might well be for just this reason that most of the East Bloc leaders -- some of whom still derive inspiration from Brezhnev's formulations -- are refusing to dance to Gorbachev's reformist tunes, preferring instead to model their responses more on the lines of the deaf adder in the Scriptures. n

(Published in Indian Express on September 3, 1988.)

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