AS EAST Germany plunges into the transition from communism to a free market, its economy is stalling. That was predictable and it's only temporary, but something close to panic has gripped the country. That's why the two Germanys' smooth and stately progress toward unification has, in its final stages, suddenly broken down into bitter internal quarreling. This dispute is easier to understand if you keep in mind that in December the Germans will hold their reunited country's first election.

Unemployment is rising fast in East Germany, and prices are up as the familiar subsidies disappear. Farmers are having trouble selling their produce. It isn't as seductively packaged as the groceries pouring in from the west. They demonstrated angrily in East Berlin last week, pelting their agriculture minister with their unsalable tomatoes.

The Social Democrats, the strongest opposition party in both East and West Germany, are now trying -- naturally enough -- to persuade the voters that they could manage things better. They have seized the idea of speeding up unification by moving it from mid-October to September. You are entitled to doubt that changing the date by four weeks would make much of a difference. But it's a symbol, and the Social Democrats are making the most of it. The effect is to throw into confusion the precise date -- certainly sometime within the next two months -- when unification will become final.

But the two governments, and the Christian Democrats who head them, have good reason not to push that date back into September. A crucial part of the unification process is to secure international consent and approval. The two Germanys are now negotiating with the four allies of World War II to end the last occupation rights won in 1945. At the beginning of October their agreement is to be taken before the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which includes all the European countries, east and west, large and small, who will give it their ritual blessing. To declare unity before that ceremony would suggest a disregard for their neighbors' interests that the Germans have (wisely) been trying very hard to avoid.

The East Germans are going to have an unpleasant winter as they learn more about the uncertainties of the world that they are now joining. But help is on the way, and on a huge scale. Western companies and banks are pouring into the East German cities to open offices, build plants and hire employees. By this time next year it's very likely that unemployment will be falling and the volume of complaints will be diminishing with it.