THE climate of economic uncertainty in Eastern Europe has been obscured by the upbeat rhetoric at the 11th East German party congress in recent days. But this uncertainty provides the United States with an outstanding opportunity to strengthen ties with that important part of the world. Eastern Europe's economic difficulties stem in part from the fall in world oil prices. Many third-world nations are among the main buyers of goods from East-bloc nations. But as export earnings fall off for oil-producing nations, less hard capital is available for imports.
Moreover, given the heavy debt load of Eastern European nations -- debt owed the West for previous loans, as well as the ongoing payments required for Soviet energy supplies -- there is little capital left for acquiring the advanced technological products, such as computers, needed to modernize local economies. Except for one or two nations in the region, particularly East Germany, which continues to display a robust economy, slow growth is expected for the area during the rest of the 1980s.
That is where the American opportunity comes in. The US should ease trade restrictions to bolster its influence in the region.
Doing that, unfortunately, is no easy matter. As the article on Romania by Nicholas G. Andrews, on the page opposite, points out, there are numerous political impediments to expanded trade with Eastern Europe, including challenges by religious and political groups. Many of these groups want to use the leverage of increased trade as a way of furthering their own particular agendas.
Providing some quids pro quo for expanded trade -- such as ensuring greater civil rights for religious dissidents, as well as the right of emigration -- may make sense. At the same time, however, the US must not lose sight of its larger foreign policy objectives.
Mikhail Gorbachev was conspicuous during the recent East German party congress in part because the East German economy is an economy that works. With its impressive work ethic and a long-range and systematic emphasis on modernization, the East Germans continue to show the rest of the East bloc that economic progress need not be incompatible with state socialism.
Yet, East Germany, precisely because of its wealth and close trading ties to West Germany, has resources that are not immediately available to most other Eastern European nations. Moscow wants East Germany to provide greater economic help for its fellow nations. But the astute East Germans, eager for better links with Bonn, are reluctant to take that lead. And that is why the American opportunity to provide greater help -- through stepped-up trade and possible new loans -- looks so promising.