Marking 10 years of often-painful transition in post-Communist Europe, Hillary Rodham Clinton said today there was no alternative to continued democratic and free-market reforms in Central and Eastern Europe, but she acknowledged that change has been painful for some segments of society that pine for a return to the old order.

"Senior citizens are asking what good are free markets when our hard-earned pensions are worthless," said Clinton, speaking here at a regional conference sponsored by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the German Marshall Fund of the United States. "Workers are asking what good is democracy when the closure of our factories has left us without jobs and the skills to gain new opportunities." But, she added, "I know people have not lost faith or given up. They understand that reform is the answer to all of these problems."

Clinton, who is planning a bid for the U.S. Senate from New York next year, is visiting Poland, Slovakia and Italy before traveling to Iceland to deliver a speech on women and democracy. White House officials said the trip had nothing to do with domestic politics or the cultivation of ethnic constituencies in New York.

"She'll be continuing her work as an ambassador of the United States," White House press secretary Joe Lockhart said in Washington. He said the trip focuses on "democracy in Europe, and the many programs that she's worked so hard on," including women's rights and economic empowerment.

In Warsaw, Clinton met with a group of female entrepreneurs at a textile factory and opened a new Jewish school that is funded by the U.S. philanthropist Ronald Lauder. At the school, Clinton said, the children who sang "Shalom" to her were a testament to the revival of Jewish life in Poland, which saw much of its pre-World War II Jewish population of 3 million people exterminated in the Holocaust. There are now about 20,000 Jews living in Poland.

She also met with Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski and Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek.

The first lady's trip comes as Buzek's Solidarity-led government is at the lowest levels in the polls of any postcommunist government, with 24 percent support. The government has been criticized for allegedly botching the introduction of ambitious reforms this year, particularly in education and health care.

Without mentioning the troubles of the Solidarity government, Clinton said that the experience of the United States shows that nation-building is a slow, multigeneration process. "We have been striving to perfect democracy for 223 years," she said. "It took us more than 10 years to draft our constitution, almost 90 years to rid our nation of slavery, almost 150 years to give American women the right to vote, and even longer to ensure that all of our citizens are equal under the law."

Clinton compared the travails of the emerging democracies with the biblical flight of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. "Oftentimes, at moments of great change, it is tempting to turn back," she said. "When Moses came down with the 10 Commandments, he was met by people who said this is too hard. . . . Let's go back to slavery." But, she said, "The path of reform may be long and it may be rocky and the goals my not be reached in the next decade or even the decade after that, but it is still worth the journey."