Bulgaria is the last communist country where one would expect sweeping reform. Fiercely loyal to Moscow, it has earned a reputation as the most subservient of the Soviet-bloc satellites. Yet it has just unveiled an economic reform plan that is as innovative as that in Hungary and could prove to be as significant for Eastern Europe. The Poles, especially, who so tragically have failed in their efforts to change the system, must be watching closely.
Under the Bulgarian plan - the so-called ''new economic mechanism'' -- centralized planning will be replaced almost entirely by the market. Individual enterprises will be given greater independence and will have to operate on the basis of cost effectiveness and profits rather than centrally set production goals. Incentives for management and workers will depend on competitiveness and quality. Workers will not ''own'' their enterprises or be given the power of appointing factory managers -- demands the Polish union Solidarity had made - but they will confirm the choices and their interests are to be taken into account. If all this seems commonsensical to a Western bystander, it is a bold step forward in communist terms.
Adopting a program and putting it into effect are two different things, of course. There are many bureaucratic obstacles to overcome, and it remains to be seen how and if the experiment works. But Bulgaria has already been quietly making changes -- decentralizing farming, rationalizing prices, reorienting the economy toward consumer goods, broadening links with the West.
Politically, too, fresh breezes are blowing. ''Liberalization'' would be too strong a word to describe what is happening. But the current focus on Bulgarian history and nationalism (Bulgaria last year celebrated the 1,300th anniversary of its founding), the greater freedom of expression for Bulgarians in the cultural area, the growing access to Western films and plays -- all these represent a loosening up of controls for the Bulgarian people.
The looming economic reform does not touch the basic communist political system, to be sure. But it is possible that liberalization in the economic field will eventually provide the back door through which the winds of political evolution can also waft. There might be a lesson in all this for Poland as it struggles to find a way back to the path of reform.