The euphoria in Central and Eastern Europe that has followed the overthrow of communism may well be replaced by disillusionment and a search for easy solutions.
Recently, rising oil prices have emphasized the poor survival potential of Eastern and Central Europe's long centrally managed economies.The countries' economic isolation along with their inability to produce salable goods was only underscored by the collapse of Comecon, the communists' trade organization.
For this reason, Western governments should quickly prepare and institutionalize a common strategy for helping democratize and develop the whole post-communist area.
First, the strategy should approach the region's needs as those of a single unit and treat them as a single systemic problem through the promotion of supranational economic systems.
This would help avoid the growth of political nationalism, which must be shown to harm the economic interests of all, and of political tensions in today's period of economic insufficiency.
Congress has committed $370 million for Eastern and Central Europe for the coming year. While in Prague last weekend, President Bush pledged to ask Congress to use $60 million of that to help embryonic businesses in Czechoslovakia. That money should be spent regionally.
Second, the region should be helped to help itself.
Before asking for economic aid from abroad, Central and Eastern European countries must prove to themselves and the rest of the world that they are able to mobilize all of their domestic resources as well as the resources that can be organized regionally.
Help should not be given to individual governments. The United States has known since the 1970s that a well-tested technique for losing money while solving nothing is to pump financial aid into governments of centrally managed, bureaucratized economies.
Instead, concrete regional development projects should be financed through international banking institutions such as the European Bank for Development and Reconstruction, with priorities set for the development of infrastructure and education.
Central Europe and Eastern Europe possess nearly all the basic conditions for economic growth and prosperity: raw materials, short distances for transportation, energy, arable land and a relatively skilled and educated pool of manpower.
What it needs is capital for revitalization, general technical know-how and a comprehensive blueprint. These lacks can be remedied.
The experience of the Marshall Plan speaks to a joint collective strategy and speedy action. The stakes are high.
The West is gambling on the democratic or non-democratic future of that part of Europe where, in this century, two world wars began.