VIENNA — UNCERTAINTIES about Russia's economic program raise many questions, but none is more cogent than the implication of widespread doubts about the scope and pace of reform now apparent in Eastern Europe.
Euphoria about the Clinton-Yeltsin summit and the United States president's talks with Central and East European leaders began to fade almost as soon as he was back in Washington.
Now it has gone altogether. And the resignation of Yegor Gaidar, author of the plan for Russia's swift transition to a free market, looks like a fatal blow to the so-called ``shock therapy'' reforms.
The case for shock therapy is that only a tough, unequivocal strategy can ensure the fundamental changes needed to transform centralized economies to viable market-based ones. Half-measures just won't work.
``What Russia has to go through to become a working society - a successful economy and a stable democracy - involves a degree of change unrivaled in modern history,'' said Harvard economics professor Jeffrey Sachs in a January interview with The European newspaper. Mr. Sachs is the best-known protagonist of the shock process, and until recently was a consultant to the Russian government. He is also highly dismissive of gradualism.
``Gradualism,'' as seen in China's two-track strategy of private businesses and subsidized state factories, has nothing to offer for Russia or Eastern Europe, Sachs wrote recently in the magazine International Economy. The problems of those countries are fundamentally different.
Yet, insofar as Sachs's radical theories have been tried by these countries, they are now seen by many reformist East European leaders and economists as imposing increasingly unacceptable social difficulties and hardships.
In Russia, shock therapy had a backlash in December's parliamentary elections, giving an antireformist, ultranationalist party a quarter of the vote. In Poland a few months previously, the former Communists - standing for a slower reform platform in elections - became the largest party in Parliament. Similar results are expected in Hungary's spring elections, and in Romania and Bulgaria, the former Communists are gaining.
Everywhere, the slow track to reform has an increasing appeal as more jobs disappear, prices rise, and living standards go on falling. Only in the Czech Republic does vigorous, imaginative reform still hold sway. But even there, successful privatization begins to threaten jobs and signal social repercussions.
As for several years, the US and the West in general take the blame for doing little to help Eastern Europe. Many analysts see the West as too uncompromising in its demands for blanket adoption of Western economic concepts, which they say are often unsuited to the East's conditions.
The statistics amply show how the West, in fact, has gone back on its aid promises of the last few years. And protectionism in the West frustrates East European needs to export in order to finance reform and develop economic integration.
``If Western politicians come with no help,'' Professor Sachs says, ``they are hardly in a position to preach.''
Eastern Europe is still held at arm's length by the West European Common Market, with mere ``associate'' status, not membership. And Central European governments feel deceived with yet another second-class ticket in the Partnership for Peace, the US-sponsored plan that falls far short of full entry into NATO.
``Four years after the cold war ended, the West still doesn't know how to treat us,'' an East European journalist told me. ``NATO cannot bring itself to say when it will accept us, nor help us in our ultimate goal: a complete integration into Europe.''
Recent indicators suggest improved prospects of economic growth in the area. That alone would seem to call for bolder, more incisive Western attitudes, as well as tangible economic support.