SOVIET leader Mikhail Gorbachev's call for greater opennness and flexibility regarding the Soviet Union's East European allies represents a fundamental shift in Soviet policy - if the new policy, announced in Moscow last week, is in fact carried out. The matter of the if is no minor caveat. Many hard-liners in Moscow, as well as within various Eastern European nations, view looser ties with Moscow as threatening party control in general. So little wonder if there is a wariness, if not skepticism, in East Europe's reception to Mr. Gorbachev's speech. He disavowed the longtime ``arrogance of omniscience'' on the part of Moscow, and called for ``a more sophisticated culture of mutual relations'' among Moscow's allies.
Still, Moscow has solid reasons to welcome greater flexibility. The Soviet Union needs access to Western and East European technology if Gorbachev's plans for economic modernization within the USSR are to be fulfilled. Moreover, tight reins carry, for Moscow, onerous obligations - such as the need to provide huge loans or infusions of aid. Ask Fidel Castro about that. Moscow, which also faces considerable costs in its Afghanistan venture, needs the cash at home these days.
Gorbachev's call for greater flexibility within the East bloc would benefit both the Soviet Union and its allies. The general secretary deserves credit for proposing such a loosening of control.