WHILE the ``dark side'' of the upheavals in Eastern Europe was evident this fall, the changes there were so dramatic and the popular passion for freedom so strong that concerns about chaos and instability were swept away by ecstatic crowds, and a marveling world. No longer. The euphoria about Eastern Europe is about over. Now it's down to tough work: establishing democratic procedures, including rule of law; overhauling huge, inert centralized economies; deflecting ethnic tensions; finding ways to interact with the West; keeping the morale up in populations that have often been marked by a pessimistic, if not fatalistic, streak.
The enterprise of change in Eastern Europe is now attended by second thoughts, worries, and doubts. How can stability be maintained in the face of economic changes involving job dislocation, the closing of state industries, new price structures and currencies? Or with a brand new form of political governance? Poland's Solidarity union is already finding itself against the wall in terms of public confidence. Coal prices there have risen 600 percent; bus and transport, 250 percent. East Germany, still losing 1,000 valuable workers a day, is wondering anew about its open borders.
The possibility of social chaos in countries such as Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria is not small. The tides of human feeling move too deeply to be contained in a day's news. Overnight a cry for freedom becomes - the brutal French Revolution, or an uprising in Romania. The careful formulations simply don't hold.
Much hinges on the success of Mikhail Gorbachev. If the Soviet Union comes unglued (if the new ``Z Theory'' proves true and Gorbachev can't maintain perestroika), then the atmosphere - the whole equation in Europe - could radically change. The specter of a hard-line takeover - one bringing ``peace'' and ``law and order'' - lurks in the background. In Bulgaria and East Germany, old party cells, and press, are creatively playing on the fears of ordinary people. In Bulgaria it's over Muslim-Turkish rights. In East Germany, it's a supposed rise of neo-Nazism among youth - used as an argument for keeping the Stasi, the hated secret police.
Fortunately, the reform energy in Eastern Europe is still strong. This spring a whole series of national elections takes place: Hungary in March. Romania in April. East Germany and Bulgaria in May. Czechoslovakia - the most stable of the lot - in June. (Fifteen Soviet republics will also hold local elections in the months ahead.) The process should be remarkable for these nations.
What may be most important in the next months and years is help - short- and long-term - from the West, including Japan. The gains outweigh the costs on all fronts. General Motors has followed General Electric's lead by doing business in Hungary. Western investors are skittish about sinking money into an unstable region. For now, technical and managerial help may be the key.
The lending bank set up by the European Community is positive.
Reform in Eastern Europe may be a 20- to 50-year job. The West needs to help the region avoid desperation, and a falling back on old character patterns.