POLAND's political overhaul has rolled back the frontiers of reform in the East. Westerners applaud, and ask how they can help. Answers are hedged with caution. Western governments, bankers, and investors, after all, are peering into the unknown.
Will the Poles, for instance, be able to pull together and trim the deadwood from their industrial base, weed out publicly financed inefficiency, and let private enterprise blossom?
Such questions won't be answered quickly. Therefore, large-scale economic help from the West, in the form of substantial debt relief or new credits, is unlikely for now - though proposals like those put forward by President Bush this week are a start toward concerted Western help for Poland. A small break on tariffs, some rescheduling of existing loans, incentives to investment in Poland - all are intended, presumably, to hint at further help if reform truly takes hold.
But beyond cautious governmental moves, other avenues exist for Westerners who want to make their own modest contributions to East-bloc change.
Poland's push toward pluralism, for instance, creates a diversity of channels through which aid can flow. Entrepreneur societies have sprouted in various Polish cities. They could be valuable contacts for Western investors willing to work with small-business men there. Thousands of Poles have sloughed off the old Marxist stigma of ``parasitism'' and dipped into private enterprise. They are ripe for training in the entrepreneurial arts. The same is true in Hungary and the Soviet Union.
Some Western organizations, such as the Soros Foundation in New York, are already heavily involved in this commerce of ideas. The foundation has long promoted cultural and professional exchanges, and is now expanding into programs to make loans available to individuals or groups in the East interested in getting businesses started. The potential for this kind of private aid, free of intergovernmental red tape, could be huge.
Agriculture is another crucial area that could profit from Western know-how. Poland's newly legalized farmers' union, Rural Solidarity, could be a channel for assistance. The Roman Catholic Church, too, has been active in efforts to strengthen Polish agriculture.
Aid at the grass-roots level, involving relatively small amounts of money, can prepare the way for bigger changes now in the wind. Moscow, for example, has been angling for membership in the world's mainstream economic clubs - the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank.
High-level thinking in the West may be coming around to opening those doors. The recent report of the Trilateral Commission - written by Henry Kissinger, Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing, and Yasuhiro Nakasone - recommends observer status with GATT and IMF for the Soviets initially, conferring full membership as perestroika attains such plateaus as a truly open economy and a convertible currency.
There was a time when the Kremlin's chief may have looked askance on any attempt from the West to further economic change in the East. Mikhail Gorbachev, however, would like nothing better than to see reform in Hungary and Poland succeed, and if Western assistance plays a role, all the better.