PRESIDENT Bush's $880 million debt relief granted to Poland during Polish President Walesa's visit to the US last week was important for two reasons. First, it helps unburden the Poles, who have moved farther than any other Eastern European nation toward free-market reforms. Poland still owes $33 billion to Western creditors. But Mr. Bush has rewarded the special courage of the Poles in pushing ahead with price reform and currency conversion. Relief didn't cost the US anything, since the money was unlikely to be paid back anyway.
Second, debt relief keeps the crucial issue of Eastern Europe and its social, political, and economic needs on the table as a top international priority. So much has changed globally in the past year that American leadership is more vital than ever in this area. The Soviet Union is destabilized, and the Persian Gulf war shook up Western Europe's unity. Today President Bush is the second most popular leader in Eastern Europe itself - more popular than Mr. Walesa or Vaclav Havel, and second only to Vytaut as Landsbergis of Lithuania.
In a way, the current climate offers the West a "second chance" at helping the struggling states of Eastern Europe.
The collapse of communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 came as something of a gift to the West. Much of Mr. Bush's rhetoric about a "new world order" is based on the geopolitical shift created by that collapse. But little actual practical work has gone into preventing what could well happen in Eastern Europe - a dark regression into nationalism and authoritarianism. As one commentator put it, in 1991 Central Europe is finding there may be a tunnel after the light.
A recent poll in Hungary, one of the best-positioned states to enter the European Community, indicated that 74 percent of Hungarians believe their condition is getting worse, not better. New demonstrations over bad conditions and unemployment in East Germany is bound to send shock waves through the rest of Central Europe - countries with no rich, familial benefactor to help them.
Last year, the Bush administration opposed the very kind of debt relief for Poland it now embraces. A harder-line USSR may have sobered the White House. US aid to Eastern Europe was a $300 million pittance last year, and this year. However, aid itself is taken more seriously now.
The fundamental need in Eastern Europe is for the development of a civil, democratic political culture. More leaders and officials must emerge from the rank and file, rather than the old system. Otherwise, Western ideas won't take hold.