East European reaction to the United States air strike against Libya has fallen short of offering Tripoli anything more than general expressions of sympathy and support, similar to the Soviet Union's own comments. Doubtless some practical support will be forthcoming from the East bloc -- but only in terms of trade, which is of considerable value to most of the East Europeans.
By and large, both the Soviets and the East Europeans are little more enamored of Col. Muammar Qaddafi's uncertain temperament nor more comfortable with his extreme approach in international relations than are most people in the West.
Thus, it was no accident of omission that, at the current East German Communist Party Congress, neither Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev nor his host, Erich Honecker, mentioned the Libyan leader by name. Their condemnations of the US ``aggression'' and pledges of support were addressed to Libya and the Libyan people.
East-bloc observers visiting East Berlin for the congress detected what one described as ``a certain soft-pedaling'' from both quarters, so that the Soviets would not do harm to their existing contacts with the US and the East Germans would not mar ties with West Germany.
``It was quite clear,'' the observer said, ``that neither wished to put too much strain on those relations by putting too much weight behind their expressions of feeling over and for Libya.''
Of the East-bloc nations, only Bulgaria addressed a personal message -- from its recently re-elected leader, Todor Zhivkov -- directly to Colonel Qaddafi. It contained a continued reaffirmation of ``full support'' in the spirit of the treaty of friendship and cooperation between them. Other East Europeans, despite their commercial interests, do not have such accords with Libya. From time to time, there has been talk of such a treaty between Moscow and Tripoli, but neither side has shown particular enthusiasm.
The common East European mood seems best to have been reflected in Hungary, which was as much concerned for the blow that the Tripoli bombing has dealt to US-Soviet relations as for the damage to Libya itself.
The Budapest daily Magyar Hirlap said that Washington had ``burdened'' its relationship with the Soviet Union by its ``irresponsible display of its vast war machinery.'' This same ``more in sorrow than in anger'' note was repeated in its comment on the cancellation of the meeting between US Secretary of State George Shultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze intended for next month. ``Under the circumstances,'' the paper said, the Soviet leadership ``had'' to make a decision that was ``deplorable, albeit necessary.''
The East bloc has obvious political interests in the third world. Its commercial ties, especially with countries like Libya, stem from the late 1970s, at a time when the Soviets began to warn that there would be limits in the future to cheap oil and that the East Europeans had best begin looking around for backup sources.
For East Europeans generally, who all need hard currency as well as oil, Libya has some attractive qualities.
``Libya,'' said a Czech source, ``is an excellent cash-and-carry business partner. They can pay cash down, or in oil, not only for goods but for expertise and the actual building of construction projects.''
Arms come into the picture, too. Czechoslovakia, a traditional manufacturer, is among Qaddafi's suppliers. Almost certainly Bulgaria and perhaps East Germany are, too.
But East Germany's relations with Libya have a particular relevance in recent events.
The US believes that the orders for the bombing of a West Berlin discoth`eque on April 5 emanated from the Libyan mission in East Berlin.
Western observers in East Berlin last week noted a certain embarrassment on the East Germans' part. They were far from happy, this writer was told, to find themselves in the eye of the current storm. Although the East Germans were quite uninvolved in the affair, the incident did not help Mr. Honecker's efforts to boost his relations with West Germany.