LOOKING east from Austria, 1991 is bleak. Returning from their long New Year holiday, Viennese found reality in the morning paper. A cartoon showed Austria burying its head in the sand, with the huge cooling towers of a power plant labeled Bohunice just beyond.
Bohunice, in southern Czechoslovakia, 70 miles northeast of Vienna, is one of the old Soviet-built atomic reactors. Austrian engineers call it an ``atomic ruin,'' potentially a Chernobyl whose radioactive fallout would poison Central Europe. They demand that it be shut down, but Czechoslovakia needs the power. The Austrians would supply it but do not have the generating capacity and cannot count on getting the current from the European grid.
Czechoslovakia must be encouraged to expand its fossil fuel production, but the high-sulphur Czech coal has already devastated the land. New, clean plants must be built and Austria must help to pay for them. The project is as budget-busting as necessary.
Bohunice epitomizes the Catch-22 sequence the West confronts in Eastern Europe. After the exhilarating liberation of 1989 and 1990, the mountain of rubbish left by 45 cruel years of communist misrule must now be cleared away. Even a world community not preoccupied with a Middle East crisis and oppressed by economic recession would have a hard time helping. The immediate problem is to keep the flood of economic and social woes from drowning democracy.
The ideal of democracy, the goal of liberation, is alive and well. Only in Romania does the wolf of the old system, now in sheep's clothing, present a direct menace. The last Stalinist holdout, Albania, is beginning to change. A real danger is disillusionment with economic shortage and confusion, another is the social and ethnic rivalry now expressed. Both can be exploited in the name of a ``strong hand,'' or law and order.
Economically, as environmentally, Eastern Europe is a wasteland. As the socialist dinosaurs, the huge, outmoded factories, are dismantled, their workers swell the number of unemployed. The armies of bureaucrats, pried from their safe sinecures, curse change. The entire old system, run by Moscow for Soviet benefit, has crumbled. On Jan. 1, the Soviet Union dropped the ``transfer ruble,'' a rubber currency worth whatever Moscow said it was worth in transactions with its Comecon trading partners. Commerce is now in hard currency.
The former satellites must now improve the quality of their output to compete on the world market. The Soviets no longer buy the junky consumer and industrial goods of Eastern Europe. At the same time, the Soviet Union sells - and that means primarily its oil, upon which its partners have depended - only for convertible currency. Bulgaria at once stopped selling fuel for private vehicles and declared an energy emergency. All the countries are looking for other sources.
In this turmoil, a wave - a tidal wave - of migrants has been moving out: to Israel, to Germany, Austria, Western Europe, and beyond. They are not political refugees as before but people seeking security and a better life. They are leaving in numbers that host countries can manage barely, if at all. Austria feels pressure from Poland and Romania. Austrian soldiers again patrol the eastern frontier. Poland and Czechoslovakia have revealed that each has one-third of its army on border duty, mainly with an eye to the Soviet Union.
Austria, with no longer even a hypothetical need to defend its neutrality against Soviet aggression, still wants its small army for ``contingencies,'' possibly serious disorder in neighboring countries. Ethnic friction between Czechs and Slovaks is almost benign; between Romania and its large Hungarian minority it approaches the homicidal, but in Yugoslavia, now moving toward disintegration, there is real danger of civil war. Tito failed in the fundamental responsibility of statesmanship, to institutionalize unity. Yugoslavia is again the Balkans with a jingoist leader of the largest republic, Serbia, striving brutally for predominance. More and more, it is every ethnic group for itself - all the sadder because they have a cultural affinity that could be the base for economic and political development.
Eastern Europe, on the morning after liberation, is a sad scene. But it has several assets: belief in democracy, rejection of a completely discredited communism, and friends who are willing to help. Eastern Europe must, however, provide the requisites for success: sustained effort and stability. It will not be easy.