Warsaw — As if their past economic problems were not enough, Soviet-bloc countries face even more trying times ahead. Poland -- with a $27 billion debt to the West -- is the most economically troubled at the moment. Latest crisis reports warn that power failures may bring total economic breakdown this winter unless coal production exceeds the present five-year plan by 3 to 4 million tons.
But Poland is not alone in its economic woes.
With the exception of Hungary, which has managed to build a degree of flexibility into its planning, the other East-bloc countries are feeling the effects of unrealistically ambitious investment policies during the 1970s and rigidly centralized (Soviet-style) planning.
Over the past five years the other European members of Comecon, the East-bloc trading community, have failed to reach major targets, especially in essential export areas. As a result, the order of the day for their new five-year plans is: reduced growth rates; a hold-down on living standards; and more demands on workers.
Poland, the biggest and one of the most developed of Russia's European allies , is defaulting on bilateral trade ties and compounding problems for its Comecon allies.
Czeckoslovakia is another of the bloc's "developed" countries with some of its most technically advanced industries outside the Soviet Union. But although it does not share Poland's problem of staggering foreign debts, Czechoslovakia still has had to set growth rates in almost all sectors well below the targets set in the last five-year plan.
At the other end of the scale, Romania is also facing formidable difficulties. It is still considered a "developing" country after several years of serious shortfalls in engineering and other export industries.
Romanian leaders announced recently that they would take no new foreign credits. Almost immediately the International Monetary Fund disclosed it has granted a Romanian request for new lines of credit totaling nearly $1.5 billion.
Bucharest does not publish such figures. But its hard-currency borrowings are believed to have topped $9 billion last year, and if the current trend continues, its debts could reach nearly $13 billion by the end of 1981. This would be about half the present Polish "millstone" of Western debts. Romania, like Poland, is said to be seeking more time for loan repayment and interest amounting to some $3 billion, due mostly to Western commercial banks next Dec. 31.
Romania's domestic situation bears no comparison to Poland's. For one thing, President Nicolai Ceausescu maintains an iron hand on politics. For another, his industrialization ambitions have left little room for consumerism.
The meat queues in Bucharest are almost as long as they are in Warsaw and popular protest is beginning to grow. But Romanian expectations are well below the level that fueled the Polish crisis last year.
Again, like Poland, agricultural failures have forced the country to draw on meat reserves and to stop food exports because of the bad market situation. But , so far, the Romanian government has contained the grumbling and made only minimal gestures to meet it.
Only Hungary, despite its raw material shortages and labor inefficiency, seems to present a somewhat brighter picture amid all the gloom. More than half Hungary's trade is within the Comecon area, but its New Economic Mechanism has allowed some flexibility in management, enabling it to make maximum use of openings to the West.
The Hungarian government has just created opportunities for private enterprise in small businesses, and fresh incentives for the private peasant plots on the fringe of the state firms. These tiny holdings -- which receive little encouragement from other East European regimes -- already provide half the country's basic food. Agriculture as a whole last year produced $100 million in exports of meat, corn, vegetable oils, fat geese, honey, and snails to the West.
this year, industry has put a new feather in the Hungarian cap.
After World War II, the Ikarus bus factory in Budapest produced only a few score vehicles yearly. Now it is the world's sixth largest bus manufacturer, making 13,500 buses a year. It also produced ambulances, mobile health units, and bookmobiles.
Its buses sell all over the world. For years they have been a top item in trade with the Soviet Union. This year, for the first time, Ikarus is selling the to the United States.
The deal it reached with the Crown Coach company of Los Angeles represents one of the most accomplished bits of marketing any East bloc country has done with American big business.
Ikarus trade representatives had noted the fast-expanding transport needs of American cities. The company found an American partner and set about adapting its vehicles to US standards. The result: a five-year deal with Crown Coach under which 200 60-foot long articulated Ikarus buses will be running on American streets next year.
That number could double if tenders to Washington, D.C., and other US cities succeed.