The Gulf War and subsequent human drama on the borders of Iraqhave temporarily obscured an issue with enormously important, direct consequences for the Western world: Can the countries of Eastern Europe successfully make the transition to democracy, or will they succumb to the anti-democratic tendencies present even before Josef Stalin imposed Communist governments in the wake of World War II?
Many observers believe that a democratic Europe stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals is now taking shape. Others worry that democracy may not easily take root in the political culture of Eastern Europe. They fear that the new democracies face the same struggle between liberal, pluralistic, ''Euro- pean'' values on the one hand and, on the other, nationalist, populist, xenophobic and authoritarian values that characterized the first half of the 20th century.
And they are not sure which tendency will win. They fear that, with the removal of Communist controls, tendencies toward fascism, corporatism and anti-Semitism will emerge to dominate the political life of the region.
In fact, politics have been so long suppressed by totalitarianism that little is known about the political views and values of Eastern Europeans. A major comparative study of public opinion in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland -- the first such survey ever conducted -- is especially welcome. This study, sponsored by Freedom House and the American Jewish Committee, was conducted by Penn and Schoen pollsters in cooperation with principal polling firms of each of the three countries. It provides the most reliable picture yet of the subjective foundations of the new democracies in Eastern Europe.
The study establishes that once again stereotypes prove misleading. There appear to be few grounds, for example, for concern about resurgent chauvinism and anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe. Jews are quite well regarded by large majorities in all three countries, and in none are they viewed through the anti-Semitic stereotypes of nationalist, Nazi or Communist propaganda.
Israel is also regarded in a friendly fashion, with approximately 90 percent of respondents endorsing Israel's right to exist. Arabs are rather less well regarded in all three countries, and Gypsies are viewed with mistrust and real hostility.
But dissatisfaction and disagreement with current policies and politics are more widespread than generally realized. Large numbers of respondents see no solutions to a good many social problems.
Majorities utterly reject socialism, but do not believe that free elections have solved their problems. Eighty-three percent of Czechs, 69 percent of Hungarians and 60 percent of Poles believe there are serious problems with how democracy is working in their country, and fewer than 20 percent in any country believe their political system is functioning well.
In Hungary and Czechoslovakia, large proportions (60 percent and 48 percent respectively) believe things have grown worse since free elections were held, and -- nearly as serious -- 59 percent of Poles believe there is no difference between conditions before and after the elections.
Somewhat comparable numbers feel that their own personal situation has worsened (72 percent in Hungary, 58 percent in Czechoslovakia and 41 percent in Poland).
Their concerns are concrete, not ideological. Nearly everyone in these countries fears rising prices and financial problems, although interestingly there is little concern about unemployment.
As one might expect from people who have lived many years under repressive dictatorships, their confidence in government is low and their cynicism high. Still, they turn out to vote and appear to have no doubt that democracy is the best choice for their future. The outlook for democratic institutions in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland seems reasonably optimistic -- and their people realistic.
=1 Jeane Kirkpatrick writes a syndicated column.