Bardejov, Czechoslovakia -- AT AN international conference on Western assistance to Central and Eastern European countries here, Vice President Dan Quayle closed his speech with this promise to them:
"We will not let you down. We will stand with you as you complete the transition from the darkness of dictatorship to the brightness of democracy."
Behind those strong words, however, is a Bush administration policy of somewhat more limited commitment than they probably conveyed to Quayle's audience. Throughout his five-nation tour of the region, Quayle emphasized to his hosts that the real byword of U.S. assistance policy is trade, not aid, predicated on the progress of economic reform.
The vice president and key aides have argued that major financial assistance to the former communist bloc countries, as well as to the economically beleaguered Soviet Union, cannot and will not be a substitute for establishment of free-market economies and open markets.
To that end, Quayle has made clear, American aid in this critical period of revival will focus on technical assistance to develop new markets in the West, while opening U.S. markets and urging members of the European Community to open theirs.
Quayle urged the leaders he visited in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria to "turn to the West" to sell their products, while emulating Western political and economic models at home.
Quayle aides reported that in the vice president's private conversations with these leaders, they too talked essentially of ways to improve their competitive trade positions. But one aide conceded at the same time that their first priority would be direct dollar assistance if they could get it.
One reason for concern among these former bloc countries about reports that the United States was considering massive aid to the Soviet Union was fear that they would be short-changed in the process. But the notion of such massive assistance was firmly and repeatedly dismissed by Quayle on this trip, and by others in the administration as well.
Quayle emphasized that aid to the Soviet Union would be considered on a step-by-step basis, determined by how fast and how effectively Moscow established a free-market economy, privatized industry and carried out democratic reforms.
The idea of a sort of Marshall Plan for the Soviet Union, or for its old satellites, was also put down forcefully by Quayle and other administration leaders on grounds that the United States' own fiscal bind precludes massive aid to any of these countries.
Concerning the Soviet Union, one Quayle senior aide suggested that massive aid could actually undercut economic and political reform by giving reactionaries a basis for arguing that the country could then persevere without basic reform.
Quayle was particularly aggressive in denouncing the idea as "the Harvard plan" -- alluding to proposals by two Harvard academics and a visiting Soviet economist suggesting aid of up to $150 billion over five years to the Soviet Union to save its economic disintegration by the development of a market economy.
But others are questioning why, after pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into military readiness in Europe during 40 years of Cold War, the United States does not grasp the opportunity of capitalizing on the Cold War's end by some such massive aid to undercut the last vestiges of Soviet influence among the old Warsaw Pact nations.
Quayle in several speeches on this trip referred to the 1989-90 period of liberated Central and Eastern European countries as a critical turning point. He told reporters that his first visit to the old Soviet satellite states confirmed to him the rightness of Western anti-communist containment policies.
But he clearly wants no part of the sort of Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe that has been suggested. He seems to fear backsliding into the old ways by the former communist satellites and wants to see good, old-fashioned Republican adherence to the free-enterprise system firmly established as the price of heavy U.S. aid.
In his toast at a state dinner with Hungarian Prime Minister Jozsef Antall in Budapest, Quayle observed that, despite progress, "Remnants of misguided socialist economics remain . . . The challenge facing Hungary today is the completion of your economic transformation, with the prosperity that only a private market economy can produce."