Washington — Hungary is the clever one, with a shrewd eye for what sells and a talent for borrowing money. Poland, on the other hand, is Eastern Europe's rambling wreck, with an economy battered by bad investments and political turmoil.
Both want to join the International Monetary Fund. For Hungary, it would be a preemptive move aimed at helping a muscular economy through some temporary difficulties, paving the way for long-term growth. For Poland, it could be a first step on the long journey toward economic recovery.
And both may have gotten a push toward membership from a third party: the Soviet Union. Preoccupied with cash problems at home, Russia may soon extend less of a helping hand to its East-bloc neighbors - sending them westward for needed economic aid.
''The Soviets don't want to pay for Poland,'' says former US Ambassador to Poland William Schaufele. ''If the West pays, that's fine with them.''
Currently, Romania and Yugoslavia are the only communist members of the 143 -nation IMF. By joining, Hungary and Poland could improve their credit rating with Western bankers and qualify for loans to ease trade deficits. But IMF help comes with strings: The fund is famous for the belt-tightening it requires as a condition for aid.
''They are the most hated banking institution in the world,'' says one international economist, ''and they are proud of it.''
Paradoxically, Poland needs such outside authority to help piece together its shattered economy. Burdened by centralized management, stuck with useless plants like the Katowice steel mill, forced to subsidize consumer prices on goods in chronic short supply, the Polish government must soon make some tough decisions. But, with little political credibility, they would have a hard time making them stick.
''Even if they were to introduce sensible policies, they would still not be trusted,'' says Richard Davies, ambassador to Poland from 1972 to 1978.
The IMF, however, could order consumer prices raised as a condition for an infusion of cash, providing a scapegoat to give the move credence in the eyes of the Polish people.
Restoring the people's confidence in the government's ability to function would be ''the single most important contribution to solving Poland's problems, '' Davies says. ''The government could begin to do the things that need to be done.''
If real reforms are begun, Poland would have a better chance of putting back payments on some of its estimated $24.5 billion debt to the West - $2.4 billion of which falls due this year. It could qualify for a balance-of-payments loan to cover a half-billion-dollar hard-currency shortfall. And Western bankers might be convinced the country was once again a worthy credit risk.
''For Poland the bottom line is cash,'' says a congressional expert on Eastern Europe.
For Hungary, the situation is far less desperate. Long called one of the best-managed economies of the East bloc, it has concentrated on small-scale ventures producing such marketable goods as Western-style jeans.
But the country also has the largest per capita debt in Comecon, the economic equivalent of the Warsaw Pact. The debt has been skillfully juggled by the nation's financiers, but debtors, made skittish by Poland, may be pulling back: ''It is likely that some Western banks are currently recalling short-term loans to Hungary,'' says a Wharton newsletter. IMF Membership would be a badge of respectability, reassuring nervous bankers.
Officially, Hungary says it is applying for the prestige, and for help in making its money fully convertible into other currencies. But an unstated reason for the applications of both Hungary and Poland may be trouble with their main sugar daddy: the Soviet Union.
''They got the green light from Moscow,'' says a congressional expert. ''They also might have gotten a little shove.''
Russia will run a record balance-of-payments deficit this year of $8 billion, according to Wharton Econometric Forecasting estimates. The grain harvest, say unofficial Soviet sources, is likely to come in below 170 million tons, the worst performance since 1975. Weak oil and gold markets have cut foreign-currency earnings. And Poland is becoming an expensive problem.
The Soviets are thus likely to cut their implicit subsidies to Comecon friends by raising their below-market prices for oil and other raw materials, international economists say. A higher percentage of hard currency would be required for payment.
Hungary will ask for $600 million to $750 million in IMF loans specifically to make up for lost Soviet aid in 1982 and '83, estimates Wharton EF. The hapless Poles would need a heftier package: $2.5 billion to $4 billion.
The effects of Russia's problems are likely to ripple through all of Comecon, an area already beset with cash flow troubles. Romania, the East bloc's basket case No. 2, recently asked Western bankers to reschedule 25 percent of its outstanding debt - $2.4 billion of which falls due this year. Czechoslovakia - thought by experts to be next in line for IMF membership - was jolted Oct. 31 when Prime Minister Lubomir Strougal spoke openly to the Communist Party Central Committee about the country's falling output and balance-of-payment pressures. The Yugoslav National Bank is asking for a $400 million loan from a Western banking syndicate.
The bottom line is bleak: The man in the street will pay more and get less.