AS we focus on war in the Gulf, and terrorism in the Middle East, and uncertainty in Central America, we should not overlook a remarkable ferment and bubbling that is going on in Eastern Europe. With the permission to speak out that has been endowed by glasnost, there is a new state of flux among the nations that pledge allegiance - with varying degrees of conviction - to Moscow.
Some experts, like Zbigniew Brzezinski, think the situation is potentially explosive. In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, he says five Eastern European countries are already in a ``classic prerevolutionary situation.'' Economic failure and political unrest are becoming the dominant characteristics in Poland, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, he writes. In any one, a spark could ``set off a major explosion.'' Though not all may agree with this dramatic assessment, there is clearly the prospect for change, change for which the West should be prepared, and which it should be prepared to constructively exploit.
Like the Soviet Union itself, the countries of Eastern Europe are afflicted by the stultifying grip of inefficient Marxist economic policy. Beyond this, widespread political disaffection exists, particularly among the young, with the rigid ideological face Moscow has presented in the past. Also, there is realization that aging party leaders and structures must be succeeded by new leaders, and perhaps structures.
These unsettling factors are bubbling to the surface for debate at a time when glasnost has authorized more freedom to discuss them.
But while Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost signals more freedom to speak out, it is not intended to destroy the Communist Party, or to permit the loss of communist control, in Eastern Europe. Mr. Gorbachev does not want to abolish the communist system; he wants it to work better.
It is a delicate juggling act for the Soviet leader. He wants a little liberalization, but not too much. Too much independence in Eastern Europe could stir demands for independence from the separate nationalities within the USSR, which have lately been increasingly vocal. Meanwhile, the policy of modest liberalization must yield speedy and tangible economic rewards, or else Gorbachev's adventurism - daring by Soviet standards - may be brought to a halt. A new report by the Central Intelligence Agency suggests that the Soviet economy fared poorly last year. If true, that does not bode well for Gorbachev.
It is in this restless atmosphere that Eastern Europeans are pondering the future.
Poland remains the most daring in attempting to establish something resembling a free society within a communist system.
In Czechoslovakia there are increasingly overt demonstrations calling for various freedoms.
Hungary is abuzz with debate about pluralism and democracy. Even the Communist Party leadership has been debating what role should be played by a range of noncommunist parties aborning.
Bulgaria, whose communist leaders have been particularly close to Moscow, enthusiastically embarked on reform programs last summer. But the Bulgarians went too far, too fast, and were reined in by their Soviet mentors. Apparently Gorbachev's concern was that the Bulgarian Communist Party's dominance might be weakened by the turmoil.
Yugoslavia, the most independent of Moscow, has a burgeoning opposition that campaigns on such heretical issues as conscientious objection to military service, gay rights, and a ban on nuclear power plants.
All this helps build the tinder that awaits any carelessly flying spark in Eastern Europe.