When East Germany disappeared yesterday, so did a protected market for Czechoslovakia's aging and inefficient industries. Unification snuffed out 400 government-to-government trade contracts that had forced shoddy goods on captive consumers in East Germany.
The former Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe are finding the economics of liberation expensive and painful -- even threatening their hopes of building open societies tied to the West. As the Persian Gulf crisis absorbs the international community's energy and resources, neglect is replacing glorification of the gentle revolutionaries who broke the Soviet empire.
Conservatives and liberals alike have used the East European uprising to score debating points and move on before the problems of transition multiply. The certainty on the right that the irresistible force of "Western values" cracked the Soviet empire is matched on the left by assurances that it was all the work of Mikhail Gorbachev. Only the people who did the work are left out of such self-serving equations.
"Freedom did not come to Eastern Europe as a gift from Moscow or Washington," writes journalist William Echikson in an important new book on the 1989 revolutions, "Lighting the Night." "It came from more than 40 years of struggle -- a daily, grinding struggle against a corrupt and evil system." East Europeans "exposed communism's fraud and brought about its collapse."
They now pay the price of their success. Few tears are being shed over the collapse of the Soviet trade bloc Comecon, which was "a planned exchange of obsolete goods and inefficiency," in the words of Jiri Dienstbier, Czechoslovakia's foreign minister. But as rotten as the system was, it was at least a system that allowed barter trade. Eastern Europe is now sliding into a dangerous limbo marked by the lack of any sustaining structure for international trade.
"We must now fight marginalization as we once fought the dictators," said one of the East European officials who have come in a steady trickle to Washington in recent days, seeking a hearing and help from the Bush administration. "The disintegration of Comecon and the Warsaw Pact is a dream come true for us. But it could become a nightmare if people decide after a year or two that things have gotten worse instead of better."
It is hard to believe that life could be worse than it was under the Stalinists thrown out by the people of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria -- and to a lesser extent Romania. But the Persian Gulf crisis could help make it seem that way to populations that are going to see oil prices rise and oil supplies drop dramatically because their governments are too short of hard currency to pay for imported oil.
The barter deals that enabled the satellites to swap second-rate goods among themselves and to the Soviet Union for oil supplies end with liberation. Moreover, barter agreements for Iraqi oil -- made directly or through the Soviet Union, which had sent weapons to Saddam Hussein for oil and then re-exported the oil to Eastern Europe -- have collapsed because of the international economic sanctions.
Visiting East European leaders, such as Bulgaria's appealing new president, Zhelyu Zhelev, report that they get a sympathetic hearing from U.S. officials but no promises of increased help. Zhelev, an intellectual who is fighting to keep Bulgaria from falling back under the control of local Communists, almost got crowded off President Bush's Persian Gulf-dominated schedule last week, but finally did make it into the Oval Office.
The Bush administration continues to nudge the ex-satellite nations seeking financial and trade support toward Western Europe. Until now, this has been a matter of political priority as well as budgetary prudence. The Bush White House consciously set the absorption of East Germany into the West as its major priority in Europe and left the rest of Eastern Europe to follow in the wake of the German ship of state.
Unification has now been achieved on the terms the administration sought. It is time for Washington and the European Community to look again at what can be done to show the ex-satellite nations that they too fit into the long-term perspective of a prosperous, secure Europe.
Only a partial victory has been achieved in Eastern Europe. It need not -- must not -- be jeopardized by the commitment the Persian Gulf demands now. The people of Eastern Europe have shown that with them a little attention and help go a long way.