After four decades of centralized government that interfered in every aspect of public and even, at times, private life, the people of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany are being left to their own devices.
In Budapest on Sunday, the government met with all political groups to discuss how matters can be managed until next year's election."The only consensus here," suggested a member of the new Hungarian Socialist Party "is that everyone understands that no one has power, that no one is in control and that we should all keep quiet about it."
East German and Czech communists have had to learn in days what
their Polish and Hungarian comrades could absorb over several months: A ruling Communist Party has no tolerable halfway refuge between power and powerlessness.
In all these countries, the party leadership in the first stage of the crisis behaved like inhabitants of a skyscraper penthouse who, upon eviction, think they will settle agreeably enough just a few floors down. After years of power, they could not imagine that the elevator they were bundled into would stop only once - in the basement.
After agreeing to surrender their constitutional right to power, the party leadership at first still talked like a force to be reckoned with. When few East Germans would have bet even a depreciating Ostmark on his chances of survival as party leader, Egon Krenz was telling interviewers that while his party would no longer boss the government about, it most certainly would "interfere" in society.
"We will interfere as far as we can and with great vigor. And not only because we represent a considerable section of the population, especially the working class."
The absence of any organized political force capable of replacing the Communists has masked this collapse of party power. In this, at least, the Communists can claim success, for it was their choice to rule over a political desert.
Leaders of the opposition movements who have found themselves overnight turned into tribunes of the people, never got a chance to learn basic political skills. Their authority was essentially moral, often earned by individual proofs of strength, such as the spells in jail of a Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia or Adam Michnik in Poland. Such people are not usually natural politicians.
In Czechoslovakia, Havel may be obliged to take up public office, for which he is suited neither by inclination nor temperament, just because there is no-one else.
Only in Poland, where the opposition was engaged on and off for a decade in something like open political competition, did a leader of proven skill have the chance to emerge, and Lech Walesa's mercurial tactics don't always please the ex-dissident intellectuals he calls on to advise him.
Power in these countries, such as it is, has passed to the prime ministers (Hans Modrow in East Berlin, Miklos Nemeth in Budapest and, till Thursday, Ladislav Adamec in Prague) though their predecessors were seldom more than office boys or fall guys for the party leaders.
Adamec's resignation suggests how perilous their positions are. A weak man, who several times allowed the party to censor his economic reports to Parliament, Adamecs couldn't withstand the contradictory pressure of opposition and party.
These prime ministers were appointed by discredited communist parties and confirmed by parliaments whose members have never fought a proper election in their life. And yet - another characteristic of communist collapse - they face social and economic problems far worse than anyone was allowed publicly to admit and whose solution requires painful remedies that even an elected government might hesitate to take (hence, of course, the censoring of Adamenc's speeches. Nemeth has just bitten the bullet and said that his predecessors lied even to the International Monetary Fund on whose good will Hungary now depends.