Poland may be only the beginning. Over the coming decade, the Soviet Union could face half a dozen economic and political crises in other East European countries as severe as those that have torn Poland, according to experts here.
The experts are close to unanimous in saying that this requires that the United States and its allies widen their focus: They must take into account an East Europe that is going to come under increasing economic pressure -- not just in Poland -- but across the board. A key cause of the pressure will be East Europe's tighter and more costly energy imports.
Some of the nongovernment specialists urge, meanwhile, that the Reagan administration move more rapidly than it apparently has so far to review East European policy and decide where and how it wants to apply its influence. So far, its moves suggest continuity with the policies of three previous administrations.
In the introduction to a recently published series of reports from the US Congress's Joint Economic Committee, John P. Hardt of the Congressional Research Service concludes that following a decade of growth and improvement in the lot of their consumers, all of the nations of East Europe face a period of economic crisis.
Rep. Henry S. Reuss, a Democrat from Wisconsin who is chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, warns that although Poland is the most obvious example of crisis, other East European countries could easily fall into similar circumstances. As examples, he cites Czechoslovakia, whose economy is suffering from slow growth, inflation, energy shortages, and a deterioration in trade; and Yugoslavia, where indebtedness, inflation, low productivity, and other factors have dimmed the outlook.
"In all of these countries the incipient unrest is very deep," Mr. Reuss said.
The committee chairman believes -- and here he speaks for himself and not for the committee -- that the US and the Soviet Union would do well to devote fewer of their resources to the arms race and more to both Eastern Europe and the less developed nations. Otherwise, he says, the world is heading for disaster.
He does not agree with conservative commentators who hold that it would be a good thing to see the Soviet Union tied down with endless crises in Eastern Europe.
"A cornered beast in a cage is not a very friendly animal," said Reuss.
Edward A. Hewett, an economist and associate professor at the University of Texas in Austin, concludes that in the early 1980s the Soviet Union's biggest economic problems will not be found inside the USSR but in East Europe.
"In the early '80s, virtually all of the new energy that the Soviet Union sells to Eastern Europe will be in the form of natural gas," says Professor Hewett. "And it looks like they are going to sell it at full world market prices."
The Soviets have been selling oil to Eastern Europe at what amounts to about half the world market prices. But with their own energy surplus growing smaller , the Soviets have gradually been trying to cut what is in effect an energy subsidy for Eastern Europe.
"Every time the Soviets push on the subsidies, Eastern Europe has to push the population," says Hewett. "That lowers living standards."
Soviet "subsidies" for oil to Eastern Europe amounted to an estimated $10 billion in 1980. That happens to be roughly equal to the total Soviet debt to the West. But according to experts such as Hewett, if the Soviets try to reduce the subsidies too quickly, they could find more East European workers taking to the streets.
Hewett thinks that Romania could become the next trouble spot, partly because its energy output has begun to fall. "Romania is now borrowing tanker by tanker from Arab banks," he said.
In a situation as complex as this one, it would not be easy for any administration to formulate and articulate a comprehensive policy. But it is against this potentially explosive background that the US and its allies must consider some of the specific issues listed by Mr. Hardt. Among others, he points to a need for US decisions on conditions to be placed on loans to Poland.
The Reagan administration's recent decision to provide $90 million worth of food to Poland and to see what it can do to help "roll over" Polish debts is more of a stopgap move than anything else. And, within the next few years, the administration may have much more than Poland to worry about.