BUDAPEST AND WARSAW — KALMAN KULCSAR is plotting to overthrow communism. The mild-mannered law professor doesn't look like a rabble rouser. He speaks softly, precisely, with the charm and polish of an elegant Hapsburg aristocrat. But since being named Hungary's minister of justice last year, he has written a new Constitution which calls for free democratic elections by early next year. In his Baroque office, Mr. Kulcsar wonders out loud whether to introduce a British-style majority vote in districts or an Italian-style proportional system.
``We probably will have some sort of combination - districts and a list,'' like in West Germany, he says. ``Both would be normal Western-type competitive elections.''
SOLIDARITY spokesman Janusz Onyszkiewicz is caught up in the same struggle. Until recently, he was summoned for daily interrogations at the Interior Ministry. Before each session, he gathered a packet of clothes from his cramped Warsaw apartment. ``I don't know whether I'll be back in 10 minutes or 10 years,'' he would say.
This June, Mr. Onyszkiewicz became a deputy in the new Polish parliament. When President Bush visited Warsaw in July, Onyszkiewicz sat at the same table as his former jailer, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, making small talk and sipping champagne.
``If one takes into account that a year ago I was in prison, this is a kind of change,'' Onyszkiewicz says, looking a bit dazed. ``We must now build a new democracy together.''
EASTERN EUROPE'S old totalitarian system is under siege, and the struggle for a new power-sharing formula is just beginning.
In Hungary and Poland, where the prospect of economic ruin and political catastrophe is great, reform has gone the furthest. In Czechoslovakia and East Germany, not to mention the two Balkan backwaters, Bulgaria and Romania, political and economic pressure is weaker, and reform remains tentative or nonexistent.
But all of these countries living under Soviet domination are unstable. At almost regular 12-year intervals, East Europeans have fought for their freedom. Hungarians lobbed Molotov cocktails at Soviet tanks in 1956, Czechoslovaks invented ``socialism with a human face'' in 1968, and Polish workers laid down their tools for Solidarity in 1980.
Today's crisis is the deepest yet. Dissent is increasing. Communist Parties in the region report a mass exodus. In Hungary, the Communists cannot find candidates to fill vacant posts of local secretaries; in Poland, the number of party members at Warsaw University, with 15,000 students, is less than a dozen.
Evaluations of the region's economic condition range from serious to catastrophic. Socialism, the ideological foundation of the Soviet alliance, is sinking in a morass of falling living standards, bankrupt social welfare systems, and soaring pollution hazards.
This profound internal malaise is sharpened by a startling external factor: the new Soviet leadership. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union for the first time not only is refusing to intervene in Eastern European affairs, it is encouraging once unthinkable reforms.
``We are witnessing the collapse of the ancien r'egime,'' explains Janos Kis, the leader of the Hungarian opposition party, the Free Democrats. ``The old ruling party is in the process of falling apart.''
Managing this transition from dependence to independence, from limited sovereignty to sovereignty, all without upsetting Europe's stability represents perhaps the greatest challenge in international affairs.
``Everywhere you look in Eastern Europe, in both reformist Hungary and anti-reform Czechoslovakia, the Stalinist legacy is being shelved,'' says Adam Michnik, the leading Solidarity strategist. ``The question now is, what will fill it - evolution or revolution?
Eastern Europe's two sprinters, Hungary and Poland, already boast the basic hallmarks of democracy:
Freedom of Movement. Hungarians and Poles enjoy Western-style passports. Long lines form early outside Western consulates in Budapest and Warsaw. Thousands stream westward every day. ``Within the past few months I've been to France three times, Austria twice, Italy, and Germany,'' remarks Kryzsztof Sliwinski, a Solidarity leader who had been banned from traveling for eight years.
Freedom of the Press. In Poland, the first opposition daily newspaper in the history of communism began publishing this May. In Hungary, censorship has been abolished this year. Private street vendors sell long-banned books about the 1956 uprising. ``There's no need any longer for my work,'' says a grinning Gabor Demsky, Hungary's best-known samizdat publisher.
Freedom of Religion. In Poland, the communist government this spring formally sanctioned the Roman Catholic Church and restored relations with the Vatican. The Pope soon plans to visit Hungary. A Protestant pastor was just elected to Budapest's parliament from the opposition Democratic Forum. Even a new Hungarian Zionist organization has been launched. ``People are no longer scared to say they are Jewish,'' says Ender Rozsa, the group's leader.
Freedom of Assembly. A group of young Hungarians recently gathered outside the Soviet Embassy, shouting ``Russians go Home.'' Police watched, smiling. Afterward, party officials shrugged, ``We don't agree with them, but we don't have the right to stop them from expressing their opinion.'' The main prewar parties, including the Smallholders and the Social Democrats, have been restored, while new parties - the Free Democrats and the Democratic Forum - have formed.
These freedoms go far beyond Gorbachev's ideas. Soviet perestroika (restructuring) envisions creating a more efficient economy without jeopardizing the party's ``leading role.'' Hungary's communists recognized the bankruptcy of a centrally planned economy more than two decades ago. They responded by injecting market elements into their system.
This formula of ``goulash communism'' failed, so the Hungarian communists now seek more radical goals. They want to junk one-party rule and the state-run economy. The only model of socialism which they see working is the Western one - as practiced in Scandinavia or neighboring Austria.
``When I think of democracy,'' says Imre Pozsgay, a member of the ruling presidium, ``my model is Austria.''
This model means losing power, a danger facing Poland's communists. After the party's crushing defeat in June's parliamentary elections, President Jaruzelski on Saturday finally offered to let Solidarity form a government, the first noncommunist government in postwar Polish history. (See related story.)
In Hungary, the ruling Communist Party formally disassociated itself from all forms of Stalinism,'' and resolved to turn itself into ``a humane socialist party.'' By transforming themselves into social democrats, the communists hope to win some 25 to 35 percent of the vote in a genuine election, opening the way to a coalition government. As in Poland, a strong presidency will be created, which probably will be filled by reform leader Mr. Pozsgay. Some communist leaders even seem to relish the possibility of going into opposition as a way of rebuilding the party's legitimacy.
``I look at the Social Democrats in West Germany,'' says Janos Barabas, the newly appointed Central Committee ideology chief. ``They are in their eighth year of opposition and still earn more respect than us.''
Dealing with victory
Just like the Hungarian Communists, Poland's Solidarity has outgrown its old political formulas and is groping to come up with acceptable new ones. Back in the 1970s, intellectuals such as Mr. Michnik and Jacek Kuron urged the construction of independent, nonviolent civilian movements. By creating an independent ``civil society,'' Michnik and Mr. Kuron argued that the communist monopoly over organized social life could be broken and the stage set for democratization.
Martial law stymied Solidarity's first effort to achieve civil society in 1980-81. But if the free independent trade union lost that battle, it won the war. The ruling generals found they never could regain control over Polish society.
Independent activities continued in apartments, in factories, and most of all, in churches. When the generals tried to impose austerity measures on society, they failed. In the end, they had no choice except to bring back Solidarity.
Relegalized Solidarity now must make what French political scientist Jacques Rupnik calls, ``the transition from symbolic politics to real politics.'' Until now, Professor Rupnik writes, ``the spokesmen for change'' faced ``an easy target: the coercion of a totalitarian state. Once that enemy leaves the state, politics becomes an expression of competing interests, of differing opinions about the conditions of freedom, about the allocation of resources, about how the pie gets cut up.''
This shift is proving traumatic. Solidarity's leaders are not professional politicians, but workers like Lech Walesa or intellectuals like Michnik. Former broad basic goals, freedom, democracy, prosperity, no longer suffice. Specific and drastic economic choices have to be made, and latent factionalism is surfacing. Mr. Walesa told the Monitor that he believes the movement will split in the coming years into its social democratic left and Christian democratic right.
``If we have pluralism, Solidarity cannot exist for long like this,'' Walesa said. ``It's a matter of time - five, 10 years.''
In his classic work, ``L'Ancien R'egime et la R'evolution,'' French historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the most dangerous period for a repressive system is when the first stirrings of reform take place. Long-oppressed people see the possibility of freedom and make new demands which can, in turn, inspire more reforms or a return to repression. For both noncommunists and communists alike, the challenge is to try to control the pace of change.
Minister Kulcsar has been traveling throughout Western Europe talking with constitutional scholars and studying successful democratic transformations in Spain and Portugal. But neither Iberian country faced an economic crisis like those in Hungary or Poland. Their ruling dictatorships had not destroyed the foundations of a market economy. A period of political turmoil and transition is no recipe for a clear, consistent economic policy, and least of all for a policy which demands great material sacrifices from the voters.
``Lots of things happening now in Hungary never have been done before,'' Kulcsar admits. ``There's just no model for what we're doing.''