THE invasion of Kuwait by Iraq has pushed the year's other major story - democracy-building in Eastern Europe - off page 1. But the needs in the former East-bloc nations are great, especially now, and they require continued time and attention from Western leaders. After all, the elimination of the old East-West confrontation may prove critical to the undoing of Iraq's Saddam Hussein. No longer can smaller nations play the two superpowers off each other in regional hot spots. All nations in the UN Security Council - from the Soviet Union to the NATO allies - raised their hands to condemn the Iraqi invasion and to agree to an embargo. This unity may yet generate sufficient pressure to make Saddam loosen his grip on Kuwait.
In Eastern Europe, meanwhile, things are falling apart. The East German economy, for instance. The unemployment rate in the Germany doubled between June and July. West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's bid to move the all-German elections from December to October - and thus lessen the political backlash that could come from further economic deterioration - has failed.
East Germany is important as an example to Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. These fledgling democracies need some evidence of success. If East Germany continues to struggle even as West Germany pumps $70 billion into its economy over the next two years, the peoples of less fortunate states could well ask: ``What's to be our fate?''
In Poland, Solidarity is plagued by infighting, splits, and factions. The Polish economy is stuck. So is the Hungarian economy. In Czechoslovakia, the gild is wearing off last November's revolution. Complaints are arising in Prague that new bureaucrats are acting as rigidly and unfeelingly as the old ones.
Prospects of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia joining the European Community any time soon are slim - by the EC's dictate. Said a recent political cartoon in Prague: ``The European home is shut. If we want to get in we first have to solve all our key problems.''
Many of those problems, surely, will have to be solved at home. A civil society must be built in East European countries: a society in which ``mediating structures'' such as schools, churches, volunteer groups, and various forms of community life begin to thrive independently of either the state or an emerging market economy. This activity would provide a seedbed for enduring freedom and democracy in Eastern Europe.
Yet the West cannot simply wait for an ideal world to evolve in the East. Building a self-sustaining civil society takes decades. These countries need help now. And so do other parts of the world. Yet as British essayist Timothy Garton Ash writes in the New York Review of Books, ``Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia are the countries where the fate of democracy hangs in the balance today, and where the weight of the West can make the difference between success and failure. You cannot do everything at once.''
A world recession caused by an oil crisis would make things even tougher in Eastern Europe - yet another reason for focusing attention on developments in the Mideast.
Though many Western nations are economically strapped, continued financial aid to the old iron curtain states, technical assistance, and support for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Redevelopment are essential. The long-term prospects for security and progress rely on such assistance. Better to face this now.