Budapest — FOR Agnes, travel means much more than a simple vacation. Her brother lives in Sweden, and under present Hungarian rules, she can only visit him once a year. But on Jan. 1, a new travel law goes into effect which will permit Agnes to travel abroad as much as she wants.
``We're waiting impatiently for this reform,'' Agnes says, speaking for herself, her family, and many Hungarians. ``Out of a total population of 10 million, there are some 200,000 of us who have relatives in the West.''
Throughout Eastern Europe, new liberalized travel policies are offering similar hope to millions. East Germany last year let 1 million citizens under retirement age as well as 2 million pensioners visit relatives in West Germany. Poland already lets almost all its citizens travel as often as they wish. Even hard-line Czechoslovakia is enacting regulations that will allow citizens to receive money for travel from Western relatives or friends.
The new rules are one sign of the impact of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's reform policies. East-bloc tourist officials interviewed in Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw say they have discarded Stalinist notions that they can shut their borders. Hungarians, Czechs, and Poles already listen to Western radio, and many even can receive Western television. So, officials ask, what danger is there in letting them go and see the West for themselves?
Tolerance has its limits, of course. In the West, citizens routinely obtain passports, but East-bloc governments jealously guard that privilege.
Except in Hungary and Poland, potential travelers must get an approving reference from their employer and their local Communist Party organization; if they have trouble with their bosses or are judged politically unreliable, too bad. And, except in Hungary, passports have to be returned to the local police office after each trip. All this is because East European governments still view travel as a privilege rather than a right.
The number of people traveling abroad from East-bloc countries remains a fairly good test of liberalism. Few Romanians or Bulgarians travel; twice as many Hungarians as Czechoslovaks travel to the West each year, though Czechoslovakia's population is twice as large.
Ironically, Mr. Gorbachev has proved less liberal on travel than his allies. In a recent interview with American television, he warned that free travel and emigration would lead to a ``brain drain.'' The Soviet government even makes contacts with Eastern Europe difficult. Group visits, often from a factory or trade union, are acceptable. Trips by individuals are discouraged.
East European officials, in contrast, no longer argue that their most talented citizens would use travel opportunities to emigrate. Most East-bloc travelers, even the East Germans, end up returning, partly because life is easier for them in the East, partly because the authorities have continued the habit of making sure at least one member of the family stays at home, in case anyone thinks of staying away for good.
Many Poles do emigrate, but the Warsaw government sees more advantages than disadvantages in letting them go. The process acts as a safety valve for the dissatisfied. Once abroad, the 'emigr'es usually send needed hard currency back home.
``We have nothing to be afraid,'' explains Wojciech Kawalec, director of outbound travel for the Orbis Travel Agency. ``If our travelers want to emigrate, that's their business.''
Eastern Europeans score ideological points by liberalizing travel. To the West, freedom of movement is a fundamental human right. In follow-up meetings on the 1975 Helsinki Accords, the Hungarians now press their Western counterparts to ease visa requirements.
``We have asked for the abolition of all visas in Europe,'' says Gyorgy Szerkey of the Hungarian Ministry of Tourism. ``Unfortunately, Western Europe, the US, and Canada refuse.''
The remark raises a pointed question: Would the West really accept tearing down the infamous Berlin Wall, with its potential flood of East Europeans looking for work, temporary or permanent? After the number of refugees from the third world asking for political asylum soared in recent years, both West Germany and Austria tightened their asylum laws for East Europeans as well. The United States also turns down many visa requests, especially in Poland, where officials say many would-be tourists actually plan to take a job.
This concern is logical, given the disparity in wages between East and West. The average Polish worker earns $17 a month (at black market rates), hardly enough to pay for a two-week trip in the US.
East-bloc currencies are not freely convertible into Western currencies, and the heavily indebted East European governments cannot afford to offer their citizens traveling cash. In Hungary, the most liberal country, citizens are allowed to change $300 worth of forints every third year. Elsewhere, citizens must fend for themselves or buy one of the limited number of group trips sold by local travel agencies in the local currency.
``Millions of Czechoslovaks would like to travel to the West,'' says Josef Riman of Czechoslovakia's Committee for Tourism. ``But the national economy cannot afford the currency.''
The problem even affects travel inside East Europe. ``Soft'' comradely currencies can be nearly as difficult to obtain as ``hard'' capitalist ones.
Czechoslovaks wanting to travel to Hungary, for example, often have to resort to the black market to obtain Hungarian forints.
When Hungary imposed new customs regulations requiring Polish tourists to pay a dollar deposit on the value of their goods, the Warsaw government protested. It took weeks to resolve the resulting row.
Just as often, though, the problems are political. Ever since the rise and fall of the independent trade union Solidarity, strict rules have limited travel by Czechoslovaks and East Germans to Poland. Ferenc Koszeg, a Hungarian dissident, lost his passport last year after he went to Warsaw to meet with Polish dissident friends.
Aside from such crucial caveats, ordinary Hungarians such as Agnes appreciate every step that makes it easier for them to freely travel. Like other East Europeans with relatives abroad, she has no problem obtaining the necessary funds to travel. But she never liked using her one allowed trip West each year just to visit cold Sweden.
``I now can visit France and Italy,'' she says, ``and my brother.''