Poland's economic plight matched by two of its East-bloc partners
Poland's economic disaster is echoing all over Eastern Europe. But only two other Soviet allies present problems that compare in magnitude to Poland's - Czechoslovakia and Romania. Both countries cling to the old doctrinaire, communist system, which is acting as a heavy drag on their economic performance.
Romania's sea of troubles includes:
* Falling domestic oil resources, making the country an importer that depends in part, for the first time, on Soviet supplies.
* The fruits of the most draconian, doctrinaire farming collectivization in the communist area. The system virtually extinguished the private peasant plot as an auxiliary ''larder'' for basic domestic needs, as was encouraged by other East Europeans.
(Both Hungary and Bulgaria abandoned centralized agricultural planning, and neither is short of food.
* Easing trade deficits with the West by boosting consumer exports regardless of home demand. The queues at ever-more-meagerly supplied stores lengthen daily, and severe ''antihoarding'' penalties and power cuts all add to the generally depressed atmosphere.
* Debts to the West that exceed $10 billion. Western governments and banks regard further support for Romania as warily as they do with Poland. The International Monetary Fund has suspended its drawing rights - specifically, for and its ability to meet IMF conditions.
Romania pays lip service to ''reform.'' But it means only frequent reorganization, new committees, and personnel shuffles. This way, the ruling bureaucracy prevents the emergence of an alternative power base which would call for different options.
The response to the present crisis comes in ever more repetitive exhortations to an already overtaxed nation to work harder and do with fewer consumer goods.
Czechoslovakia is in as sad shape as Romania. Prewar, it was one of Europe's most efficient workshops. The occupying Germans - not greatly troubled by resistance - kept it that way and even improved it. Progressively since the communist 1950s, however, the story has been one of decline.
By 1965 (well before the Prague spring) things were bad enough to force even the Stalinist leadership of that time to accept some concepts of a profit-guided market economy. The reformers behind Alexander Dubcek simply planned to carry that first reform further.
In fact, reform continued under the subsequent ''normalization'' well into 1969.
Then there was a total ideological turnabout that outlawed ideas of a ''socialist market,'' restored the command-type centralist economy, and purged thousands of realistic planners and expert managers - some 40 percent, all told. The warnings of the '70s - the world energy and raw materials crises as well as an end to cheap Soviet oil - went unheeded. The 1976-80 plan closed with a record burden of excessive investment and a so-far-undisclosed volume of capital tied up in unfinished and nonviable projects.
The alarm bells are sounding from almost every sector. Increasingly, even the Soviet Union rejects Czechoslovak goods from both heavy and light industry, because of poor quality.
But the Prague regime takes the same tack as the Romanians in bringing about reform. It applies weak organizational changes and calls on the nation for better and harder work. It still balks at methods and incentives to give management a better chance to gain confidence and venture beyond present limits.
Reform almost inevitably entails political changes, too, and that is a prospect that makes Prague's present leaders extremely anxious. Such changes, in fact, are as taboo as in Romania. Romania, however, lacks the basic structural levels of development that keep Czechoslovakia afloat.
A realistic approach to today's problems in both countries would require wide-ranging decentralization. But neither of Eastern Europe's two most orthodox and politically hard-line regimes is ready to take such risks. Both prefer to play safe with the ''system.''
But the system has not drowned the economies of East Germany, Hungary, and Bulgaria. These countries have adjusted the system to their national interests. And though they also suffer economically, their plight is less severe compared with the problems of Poland, Romania, and Czechoslavakia.
East Germany has turned to traditional management and worker skills and a national ethic of thoroughness and discipline. In Hungary, living with the system has translated into persistence with imaginative reforms - often against outside economic pressures. Bulgaria has a tradition of hard work which, in recent years, it has combined with a distinct touch of Hungarian pragmatism and common-sense management.