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The Shattered Bloc.

The Shattered Bloc.

Elie Abel. Houghton Mifflin, $20.95. Writing a book about Eastern Europe is like taking a photograph of a speeding train. It's not Elie Abel's fault that his account was repeatedly overtaken by events. Abel, who covered the region for The New York Times in the 1950s and for NBC News in the 1960s before becoming a journalism school professor and dean, revisited his old stomping grounds for three months in the summer of 1988. That was a century ago, Eastern European time. (They don't even call it Eastern Europe anymore; it's "Middle Europe" now.) Abel writes that he kept up during 1989 by reading the clips. Unfortunately, it shows. While he manages to provide a cogent and often revealing summary of developments in the area, he misses the drama and richness of one of the great upheavals of the 20th century. The Prague I saw on a brief visit last December is nowhere to be found in Abel's pages. Where's the exhilaration?

But of course romantic revolutions - even if they are peaceful - have a way of running up against prosaic problems. The best contribution this book makes is to lay out the economic realities that lie ahead for these countries. They are daunting. In Hungary, for instance, some 40 percent of state-owned companies lose money. There is no mechanism in Hungary to evaluate credit-worthiness. (On the other hand, one might have been created by the time you read this.) A recent poll of Hungarian students showed that only 37 percent were optimistic about the country's future, compared to 70 percent in 1983, when the push for reform was beginning. That's called a revolution, all right - a revolution of rising expectations. Hungarians are now hoping for many things that until recently they never even thought of - things that they now know will take many years and lots of sacrifices to attain. The new government can't help invest in the future; its hands are tied by the International Monetary Fund. And West Germany and Japan, which already lost billions in bad loans to Hungary in the 1970s, aren't expected to come back. "In the minds of most citizens, the very word `reform' has come to stand for harder times ahead," writes Abel.

The encouraging news, which Abel mostly misses, is that in many of these countries the people have already shown they are willing to pay what he calls the "punishing price." In Poland, the medicine is stiff indeed, and last year practically every visiting expert came home to say privately that Tadeusz Mazowikcki wouldn't last long. The experts were wrong. Abel does a good job of explaining how the nomenklatura (entrenched bureaucracy) and ingrained resistance to profit-making make the prospects of reform bleaker. But I think Abel underestimates the natural human inclination for entrepreneurial capitalism. In the months since he wrote the book, conservative forces have shown great strength at the polls. Those votes are not just rejections of communism; they are endorsements of some kind of capitalist system.

But what kind? Here Abel helps explode a particularly chauvinistic American myth. "More than a few [of those he interviewed] were troubled by what they viewed as its [capitalism's] essential heartlessness; they cited our boom-and-bust cycles, recurrent unemployment, the stubborn survival of poverty in the midst of plenty, and the astronomical cost of medical care. When I asked them to name countries that resolved these problems, Finland, Sweden, and Austria led the list - all three parliamentary democracies with mixed economies and generous social services." This confirms what I found on my trip - that the United States is not the model we sometimes assume it to be.

Abel finds some gold in little nooks and crannies. It was news to me, for instance, that before East Germany's Erich Honecker fell, he undertook a last-ditch effort to reestablish some form of traditional German nationalism. He tried to rehabilitate Bismarck, Frederick the Great, and Martin Luther. It didn't work, of course, but the details of the death throes of communism have been overlooked in many of the postmortems.

If this isn't the one book to read about the events of 1989, which of the dozens of forthcoming journalistic accounts will be? It will have to combine the deep historical understanding of a William Pfaff with the on-the-ground analysis of a Timothy Garton Ash and the telling eye of a P.J. O'Rourke. Let's hope someone can pull it off.
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Author:Alter, Jonathan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1990
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