FLOWER power may have been the non-violent symbol of protest in the 1960s. But in Bulgaria it is candle power that has brought the Communist Party to its knees. Reform has so far been slower and less dramatic in Bulgaria than in Hungary, East Germany, or Czechoslovakia. It has, however, proven to be steady. The swelling ranks of Bulgarians holding flickering candles outside government buildings in Sophia - their symbol of watchful protest - have brought a promise of free elections and the end of the Communist Party's monopoly role, the legalization of opposition party Eco-Glasnost, and plans to rewrite the Bulgarian constitution by the end of 1990.
Now the spirit of democratic reform is catching on further in Bulgaria. New Politburo member Alexander Lilov, a reformer who had been isolated by old party chief Todor Zhivkov, said during a special Central Committee meeting last week, ``The most important question to ask is why the system breeds dictators and why it tolerates them for so long.''
The corrupt and tyrannical Zhivkov has been tossed out of the party, along with several cronies. As with corrupt former East German chief Erich Honecker, Zhivkov may be held legally responsible for crimes against the state.
Yet anti-Zhivkov sentiment is not enough. Many Bulgarians know they must keep their candles burning if change is to be more than cosmetic.
New party chief Petar Mladenov is struggling hard to detach himself from the Zhivkov regime. He's twice reformed the party leadership. Actual change - dates for elections - still remain vague, though.
Bulgaria has always looked to the Soviet Union for its lead. Mr. Mladenov appears to be doing the same. He believes in perestroika. He wants a ``socialist market economy.'' Yet even while offering multiparty elections, he will try to slowly manage change in Bulgaria so that a transformed Communist party (per Gorbachev's lead) ends up in the dominant role.
That's going to be tricky. It isn't clear that Mladenov has enough real reformers in the party to gain the people's confidence. If not, he may not survive.
The outlook for successful reform, however, may be fairly bright. Despite Zhivkov's influence, the lessons of change in Hungary and other neighboring countries weren't lost on all Bulgaria's ruling elite. Some hope to take perestroika beyond the half-measures applied so far in the Soviet Union. And they start with a homogeneous, disciplined populace - a resource missing in the huge neighbor to the east.
In any event, reform in Bulgaria is taking on a political momentum of its own. The various groups of intellectuals, environmentalists, and trade unionists joining to form the Union of Democratic Forces may in a year constitute a serious challenge to the party. The long dormant agrarian party appears to be reconstituting itself. That's all to the good.
Long may the candles burn.