The departure under pressure Wednesday of Erich Honecker as leader of the German Democratic Republic sends a strong and encouraging signal throughout Eastern Europe.
The message is that leaders of other Soviet satellites had better start paying closer attention to Moscow and go at least as far as Mikhail Gorbachev has in relaxing restrictions on individual liberties and trying to produce more consumer products.What an ironic political epitaph this is for Honecker, who rose to power and held onto it for 18 years by cracking down at home and being loyal to Moscow. But the loyalty lasted only as long as Moscow resisted change anywhere behind the Iron Curtain.
Once Moscow itself altered course, pressures on Honecker to shift or leave started to mount. Those pressures took the form of a wave of popular protests and a massive exodus of Germans from the German Democratic Republic to the West.
With Honecker's departure, a precious opportunity exists to bring change to a key part of the communist bloc - a part that has long been considered Moscow's staunchest ally.
But that opportunity can be muffed unless the Germans who have been fighting Honecker do a better job of organizing. Unlike Poland, which has gone the furthest in shaking off communist fetters, there is no charismatic leader in this part of Germany like Lech Walesa, no tough organization like Solidarity, and the aims of the protesters remain vague at a time when they need to start gelling into specific program and policy objectives.
Meanwhile, Erich Honecker, once popular with his fellow citizens, will now be remembered as the man who built the hated Berlin wall, opposed the reunification of Germany and fought political and economic reform. May his fate be kept firmly in mind by any other satellite leaders who may be tempted to resist the winds of change sweeping Eastern Europe.