THE ironies of history are seldom so cruel as those being inflicted these days on the citizens of the former Eastern bloc. Having spent decades locked in solitary confinement behind an Iron Curtain of totalitarian rule, they now face the prospect of being locked out from the long-sought affluence of the West by an equally impenetrable Gilded Curtain. For Western Europeans as well, the ironies are extreme: Freed at last from their fear of military invasion from the East, they are suddenly confronted with the threat of a very different kind of invasion - a massive influx of refugees from the threadbare and increasingly threatened democratic experiments of post-communist Europe.
With startling suddenness, last autumn's revolutionary euphoria has evaporated before the stark realities of rising crime, unemployment, and ethnic unrest. The social solidarity of those first heady days is rapidly disintegrating in the face of worsening scarcities and the prospect of imminent economic disaster.
The human tide that may well begin moving west this winter could swamp Europe in a sea of economic refugees. Some observers estimate that as many as 25 million people could seek to migrate to the West in the next year or two, in search of a better life. What most will likely face at the border, however, is an invisible but nearly impermeable wall of rejection by a Western Europe unprepared to absorb them at the expense of its own prosperity.
What happens then is anybody's guess. Last autumn's revolutions were triggered by East German youth migrating westward through the newly porous borders of Hungary and Czechoslovakia to West Germany. Their numbers were a relative handful - some hundreds of thousands - but the effects of their migrations were many and major.
Anticipating a flood that would drain the GDR and place an intolerable burden on West Germany's resources, Chancellor Helmut Kohl elected to invest in East Germany's prosperity - and in the process incorporate it. But the scale of the migration is much larger now and the desperation more extreme. Many of these refugees will not just be seeking a better life but fleeing famine in the Soviet Union or civil strife in Romania and Yugoslavia.
How will Western Europe respond to this tide of beseeching humanity at its borders? The question already confronts a number of nations. Austria recently reinstituted restraints on immigration from the East. Sweden, always exceptionally liberal in the past, now questions whether it, too, must impose limits. Many Western Europeans fear, perhaps rightly, that the quality of their lives and the prosperity of their societies would suffer an intolerable overload. Besides, for most of the refugees themselves it is no long-term answer to be uprooted from their ancestral homes. Most would gladly return if they felt there was a future there for them.
Last year in the immediate aftermath of the autumn revolutions, there was vague talk of a new Marshall Plan to help bring the Eastern bloc up to the level of the West. But those expected to take the lead were indisposed. Facing severe budget constraints, George Bush was reluctant to commit major resources to the reconstruction of the East, though he also refused to trim the $170 billion a year the US still spends on the defense of Europe against a rapidly disintegrating adversary. The Germans, sensing commercial opportunities, invested more actively in the Eastern bloc but soon became preoccupied with the costly process of their own reunification.
But what the West could have done last year in a spirit of enlightened self-interest, it will now be forced to do as its only means of containing chaos. Many of the institutions essential to mounting a massive and sustained reconstruction effort in the former Eastern bloc are already in place, though still in embryo. Last spring the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development was founded to funnel Western aid to the Eastern bloc, and just this fall the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) established a small secretariat in Prague. Encompassing East and West, both institutions would likely play pivotal roles in any coordinated effort.
Their agenda is already clear. The most pressing need at the moment, indeed the one that may force cooperation on a still complacent West, is food aid for the Soviet Union, which faces its leanest winter since the Second World War. Beyond this emergency is the more long-term rebuilding process to provide the East with the tools essential to participate effectively in the world economy, by investing in the construction of modern telecommunications, energy, and distribution systems. These should be constructed largely on a regional rather than national basis, both to achieve economies of scale and to entwine these oft-divided nations in a web of common commerce and technology that is equally compatible with the West.
If East bloc democracy is not to become a mere fleeting episode between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, the West must not draw a Gilded Curtain across Europe in the face of the East's increasingly desperate pleas. Should they fail in their democratic experiments, their successors will gravely imperil ours. Investing in their prosperity, we preserve and enhance our own.