HUNGARY's dismantling of a barbed-wire fence separating it from Austria takes a little more iron out of a corroding ``Iron Curtain.'' It's a symbolic act, but the symbolism is poignant. Budapest is lurching toward political change. Its once-monolithic Communist Party shows signs of splitting into factions (long a Marxist-Leninist no-no), with the most liberal reformers wielding the bulk of power. A new constitution is on the horizon, incorporating checks and balances and doing away with the Communists' ``leading role.'' Free elections are promised for next year.
Hungarians look West for their role models these days. The social democracy of Sweden, Finland, and Austria - not Soviet-style socialism - is the object of emulation. It was only logical that the fence come down.
The highest partitions in Eastern Europe now are those between the reformist socialist states, Hungary and Poland, and their hard-line communist neighbors.
In July, George Bush will recognize the new openness in the East, with stops in Hungary and Poland as part of his first European tour as President. Leaders in both countries will doubtless use the occasion to ask for greater US help with their economic reforms.
Poland is almost as gung-ho for change as Hungary is. Party leader Wojciech Jaruzelski admits that aspects of socialism haven't worked in Poland. Arm in arm with Lech Walesa, head of the Solidarity trade union he once banned, General Jaruzelski is striding into a new era of elections and multipolar politics. The country's redesigned parliament - with all seats in the new upper house and a third of those in the lower chamber freely elected - will have a decisive say in crucial economic reforms.
Jacek Kuron, a Polish activist and political theorist, has said the goal is ``an entirely new political geography,'' with new alignments and new antagonists. Both the Communist Party and Solidarity could be transformed, he says.
The Soviet Union, for now, appears willing to let things proceed. The Poles may be encouraged that perestroika has now embraced a limited right to strike for Soviet unionists. Not long ago, that would have been considered an ideological absurdity in the ``workers' state.'' But wildcat strikes have been occurring anyway under Mikhail Gorbachev; the shift favors reality over ideology.
Hungarians busily redefining their politics retain memories of 1956 and the Soviet invasion - triggered, they'll recall, by talk of leaving the Warsaw Pact. Still, Mr. Gorbachev has given his blessing to reform in Hungary and Poland. But even he could be shocked by what the future holds.
Just as important as the Soviet response is the response of average Hungarians and Poles. Can a somewhat cynical, economically strapped populace be rallied behind reform? The coming election campaigns will provide at least a partial answer to that important question.