Private farmers stricken by plummeting food sales and western bankers owed billions of dollars of debt have emerged as the most tangible losers in the aftermath of Eastern Europe's contamination by the Chernobyl nuclear accident.
The Soviet Bloc governments of the region and their ambitious nuclear power programs, meanwhile, appear to have survived the crisis largely unscathed.
The accident appears to have made concern about the safety of nuclear power a public issue in Eastern Europe for the first time since a massive program to build nuclear power plants began in the late 1970s. It also has raised questions about the Soviet Union's relations with its allies, who were clearly concerned about Moscow's failure to provide timely information.
Yet, as the leaders of Moscow's six East European allies prepare to meet with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in a Warsaw Pact summit next week, there has been no public sign that Eastern Europe will win any political or economic concessions from the Soviets as a result of the accident.
Moreover, the Soviet-led nuclear plant construction program for the region already has been reaffirmed. A meeting in Moscow of the East Bloc's Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, or Comecon, announced "unanimous" agreement last month that "an accelerated development of nuclear power engineering is the best method of coping with energy problems."
Plans call for an increase in the number of nuclear reactors from 18 to 50 in the six countries of Soviet-allied Eastern Europe by the end of the century, including eight new plants scheduled to open in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and East Germany by the end of next year.
The consequences of Chernobyl have illustrated the degree to which Eastern Europe's alternatives in energy policy are tightly constrained by Soviet control over supplies of natural resources and technology, western diplomats and experts said.
At the same time, concern about Soviet reaction seems to have caused several governments in the region to play down economic damage. "They can't address the problems of farmers without embarrassing the Soviets," a Polish agricultural expert said. "So they are trying to do and say as little as possible."
Nevertheless, some authorities have focused attention on the economic consequences of the accident. In particular, officials in Romania, Poland, and Yugoslavia have warned that losses of export earnings due to a ban on Eastern European agricultural products in Western Europe imposed last month may slow down their payments on large debts to the West.
Bankers in New York told news services last week that Romania already has postponed $300 million in debt payments due this year, citing lost agricultural export revenue as one of the reasons.
Polish officals have estimated that the ban by the European Community cost the country $50 million in May and that losses, because of lingering resistance to Polish goods, may amount to hundreds of millions of dollars this year. If so, Poland could have difficulties meeting payments it has planned on its already unmanageable $30 billion debt, officials said.
While sharply criticizing the EC measures, the communist governments have offered little information about farmers' losses resulting from drops in exports and in domestic consumption of fruits and vegetables.
However, information available in Poland indicates that the damage to private agriculture may be extensive.
According to one source, a Polish government economic commission was informed in mid-May that losses in agriculture already amounted to 1 billion zlotys, or about $6.25 million. Demand for lettuce, radishes and other vegetables on the domestic market declined by up to 90 percent in the weeks after the accident, the commission was told.
Wholesale prices on Warsaw's vegetable market plummeted during May, with the price of lettuce falling from 30 zlotys (about 18 cents) a head to as little as 3 zlotys, according to farmers.
"The losses are mounting for everyone -- vegetable growers, milk producers, and now strawberries," said Leon Janowski, a greenhouse owner and former activist in the banned trade union Solidarity. Janowski said he personally suffered a loss of 100,000 zlotys ($625), a sum equal to three times a typical worker's monthly salary.
The Polish government daily, Rzeczpospolita, conceded last week that "there is no way to hide" the losses of producers and cooperatives in vegetable production. Despite quiet pressure from official farmers' organizations, however, the Polish government has refused to grant special compensation for the losses. Private farmers who had contracts with the government are receiving only partial payments based on the drastically reduced market prices for vegetables.
Among other Eastern European countries, only Hungary has adopted special measures to help agriculture. The government announced that vegetable farmers and distributors would be paid compensation for losses out of a "trade intervention fund" after assessments are carried out by government authorities.
Despite the ability of communist governments to deflect the issue of losses after the accident, there are some signs that public concern about the safety of nuclear plants may emerge as an enduring problem.
Polish authorities already have faced a variety of petition drives and small-scale protests on nuclear issues since the accident, including calls for a reexamination of plans for the country's own nuclear plants.
The public pressure has prompted assurances that structures to contain radiation leaks and new safety measures will be built into Poland's nuclear stations, even at a cost of delaying their construction. Romania and Bulgaria also have publicly promised a reexamination of safety issues.
Such public pledges have been significant if only because Eastern European governments previously had dismissed the issue of nuclear safety as a western media phenomenon.
However, official reports so far have indicated that safety concerns are not likely to slow the rapid pace of nuclear construction in the region.
"The anxiety of Polish society brought about by the breakdown was understandable," Polish leader Wojciech Jaruzelski said in a speech last week.
However, he added, "Poland will be unable to do without nuclear power plants, constructed with maximum safety for people and the environment."
Public health consequences of the radioactivity that blew over the country continue to be a topic of doubt and debate for experts in Poland. Using data from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Polish scientists have calculated that 400 people in the country eventually may contract cancer.
More concretely, doctors and government officials have confirmed that a number of pregnant women have had abortions in the weeks after the accident. Physicians at state-run hospitals in Warsaw said they have advised women that the radiation from Chernobyl poses a risk for the outcome of pregnancies now in their early stages.
Health sources maintained, however, that the total number of abortions in Warsaw had not risen significantly in the last month. A recent government statement said there had been no evidence that birth defects would increase as a result of the radiation.