A YEAR AGO Romania exploded into spectacular street fighting in what seemed at the time the bloodiest of the Eastern European revolutions. The blood was real, but in retrospect it's clear that the revolution was largely fake. It's now evident that many people high in the Communist Party collaborated with the army to deflect a popular uprising while destroying the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, whose megalomania was endangering them.

The execution of Ceausescu on Christmas Day, 1989, left his country in marginally better shape. It is no longer sealed off from the rest of the world as it was before the coup. Dissent and inquiry are no longer punished as immediately and ferociously. But Romania is still very much a one-party state, the party having changed its name to the National Salvation Front. It still has no intention of sharing power. It's still allergic to questions about what really happened in that violent December a year ago. Romania's people still live wretchedly, the victims of atrocious government.

There were always marked differences among the six countries that comprised the Soviets' European empire, and during the past year those differences have widened dramatically. The east Germans -- with the disappearance of their state, the adjective is no longer entitled to capitalization -- are now living under Western law. Economic reform is advancing in Poland and Hungary, both under elected non-Communist governments. Political freedom is well established in Czechoslovakia, although the economy is lagging, and the country is increasingly preoccupied with tension between the Slovaks and the Czechs.

But the greatest distinction is between the Balkans and the countries to the north. Bulgaria was the only one of the Soviet-dominated states to return Communists to power in a free election, and that government has now collapsed under the pressure of the economic deterioration and a general strike. Both there and in Romania, economic development is running backward, and the process of political evolution has hardly begun.

That's why aid from the West has to be conditional on achievement. It has to be used to reward courage and good policy, not to compensate for the lack of them. The rule sounds heartless, particularly because the Romanians and Bulgarians are already at a far lower standard of living than their neighbors to the north, and perhaps there will have to be occasional humanitarian exceptions. But it would be a gross abuse to allow aid to prop up, in particular, the not-so-post-Communist regime in Romania.