WARSAW — AT WARSAW University the other day Vice President Da Quayle met with a group of students to find out what was on their minds. In short order he learned that for many of them it was the Soviet Union.
Although the stranglehold that Poland's eastern neighbor once had on the country has now been broken and the Soviet Union itself is in economic distress, the students expressed concern about its continued military presence in Poland and talk of massive American aid to Moscow.
After Quayle had delivered a little speech about how the exercise of freedom was the essential ingredient of economic revival, one student replied that freedom was "a beautiful word" but what about those troops in Poland? About 50,000 Soviet troops remain here and President Lech Walesa has yet to reach agreement with Moscow on their removal. When Quayle told the young man that the troops were leaving, he shot back: "Nobody believes it." And further assurances from Quayle didn't seem to mollify him.
Another student wanted to know what Quayle thought the future relations between Poland and the Soviet Union ought to be. Quayle noted that economic reform in the Soviet Union will benefit Poland by providing markets for its goods -- markets that seem to have dried up as a result of Soviet economic woes.
Still another student inquired about American financial aid to the Soviet Union now under consideration. This is a matter of great interest not only in Poland but also in Hungary, where Quayle encountered similar questions on the topic earlier in his five-nation tour. Some Eastern European leaders want to see the Soviet economy strengthened so that it can buy their exports. Others are fearful that a massive financial aid package for the Soviets will freeze them out of American assistance as they also struggle to recover.
On this question Quayle clearly comes down on the side of assisting those former eastern bloc countries, like Hungary and Poland, that already are the most advanced in adopting democratic processes and free market economic reforms.
In Budapest and to a lesser extent here he went out of his way to undercut proposals from some economists, notably at Harvard, for massive dollar aid to the Soviet Union -- as much as $150 billion over five years -- to put the other military superpower on its economic feet.
In Budapest Quayle called this idea, a sort of Marshall Plan for the Soviets, a "real non-starter." When that categorical observation seemed to go beyond stated Bush administration policy, Quayle in Warsaw said only that such an idea was "way premature . . . way, way down the road, if at all."
But even for the old eastern bloc states the Quayle message is trade, not aid. He has made it clear that as far as the Bush administration is concerned, these countries must look primarily not to American dollars but to developing markets in the west with eventual links to the European Economic Community, and to attracting foreign investment.
After announcing some small grants for energy and environmental studies in Hungary, what Quayle came up with here was a presentation of some official Polish documents from before World War II found in the National Archives in Washington, with the promise of more to come. While the recovery of these valuable papers may excite Polish scholars, it will hardly help their struggling economy.
While the students with whom Quayle talked obviously are concerned about their own country, their questions conveyed a real preoccupation with the Soviet Union, in whose shadow Poland has struggled for more than 40 years. Still another student questioned Quayle about the Soviet attacks on Lithuania, concerning which an official Soviet report has just exonerated the Soviet military. Quayle, ducking, predicted that the independence of the Baltic states "will come about" in time. When asked, in effect, whether Boris Yeltsin might offer greater hope for change in the Soviet Union than Mikhail Gorbachev, Quayle replied rather lamely that "you never know how someone is going to be as a leader until he becomes a leader."
The students in this session seemed so preoccupied with the Soviet Union, in fact, that American ambassador Thomas Simons finally asked whether anyone was interested in talking about Poland. The whole exchange underscored how even among the younger generation, the Soviet Union remains a dominant concern in this part of the world long after the Cold War came to an end.