Paris. -- The West is setting up obstacles to the East Europeans' efforts to help themselves. Enthusiasm for helping the Soviet Union and the Eastern countries is running into a Western unwillingness to accept the pain involved in doing the things seriously needed in the East's crisis.
The American government is for aid, but not if it involves money from the official budget. The East Europeans are advised to privatize their economies and let nature take its course -- as if an economic revolution were to be accomplished by passing laws in East European parliaments.
Particularly curious is that the West seems more interested in helping the Russians, who are responsible for putting themselves and the rest of Eastern Europe into this catastrophe, than the East Europeans, who are the Russians' victims. Indeed in a significant respect the East Europeans have been the victims of the Western powers as well.
The East Europeans were handed over to Soviet domination by the Western allies at Yalta and Potsdam. There was little else the Western powers could have done at the time, given the Soviet army's domination of the region. But one would think the West might today consider itself under a serious residual obligation to help these countries -- an obligation they certainly do not have with respect to Moscow.
All good luck to the Soviet people and leaders today: but they have only themselves to blame for the Soviet Union's crisis. Lenin was a Russian, Stalin a Georgian, and all the dirty work was done by local hands. In Eastern Europe the crimes were committed on Soviet orders, with a Soviet gun in the back.
The East Europeans are asking primarily for access to Western markets and investments from the West. They are not getting a great deal of either. It is estimated that more money is being paid annually to the West from the East, in loan interest and loan repayments, than the East European countries have yet received from the West.
Poland in 1990 accounted for just 1.1 percent of the external trade of the European Community. Half of what it did export to the EC was in sectors the community considers "sensitive" -- because, for the community, they are sectors in decline: agriculture, textiles, iron and steel. These are the sectors in which Poland has a comparative advantage. The same problem exists for other countries.
Last week, the European Community refused an agreement with Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary that would have given their food exports more generous access to West European markets. The agreement would also have prepared the ground for eventual formal ties between the EC and those countries.
France vetoed the agreement. It did so because the derisively small quantity of Polish beef that would have entered the EC under the agreement inconvenienced French beef producers. The French now are in an acrimonious run-up to legislative elections in 1992, when the governing Socialists expect to be in serious danger. The farm vote ordinarily does not go to Socialists. Now it might -- assuming that France's farmers are as grasping and ungenerous as their government has demonstrated itself.
Electoral cynicism must have some limit in a government which ordinarily protests itself motivated by higher considerations than sheer self-interest. But even if this act was meant as a mere electoral gesture, later to be reversed under pressure from the other European governments, much damage has already been done. (The Dutch prime minister, Ruud Lubbers, called the French action "sickening.")
We are at a sensitive psychological moment in the development of the former communist states' relations with the West. People there have longed for 40 years to have the chance to join the West, about whose virtues they have a perhaps unwarrantably high opinion. During the same period the Western powers constantly urged them to defy the Soviets and struggle for democracy. They did so. They finally are free. Now what?
A Czech diplomat who was part of the wartime government-in-exile in London, Ivo Duchacek, spoke to the BBC several years ago about the Czechs' attitude as the war drew to an end. Remembering the West's betrayal at Munich, they feared they could expect no help from that quarter. The Soviet Union was a problematical postwar ally, but "the United States (was) . . . a chivalrous knight who comes to save Europe usually five minutes after midnight" -- which was to say, too late.
Prague in 1945 could easily have been liberated by George Patton's Third Army; but Patton was halted by General $l Eisenhower. Czechoslovakia had already been assigned to Soviet military operations, and Eisenhower would allow no U.S. casualties taking territory "which we will soon be handing over to the Russians." However, there had been no political agreement with Moscow on Czechoslovakia.
Mr. Duchacek quotes a friend in Prague who had been a prewar member of the Catholic Democratic Party but now planned to join the Communist Party: "If General Eisenhower and General Patton don't dare to displease the Russians, why should I?"
The French government last Friday would not displease French farmers -- who already benefit from what everyone recognizes as an economically indefensible EC support system. The other members of the community were incapable of persuading France to allow a trade agreement with the East Europeans which mainly concerned matters having nothing to do with beef.
The episode provided another reason for the East Europeans to think that in matters involving sacrifice or risk, the West's attitudes toward them have not really changed that much since 1938, or 1945. Eastern Europe was then considered expendable and seems now to be. The political decisions taken at Yalta could find a reiteration today in matters economic. One may hope of course that this will not be so. But Czechoslovakia and Poland and the others could once again find that they are on their own.
3)William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.