A guide to creeping capitalism in the East bloc

* Retired metalworker Jozsef Molnar owns an engineering workshop in Budapest where he both repairs automobiles and makes parts for them. Without craftsmen like him, Hungarian car owners, particularly those with Western cars, would be in dire straits.

Mr. Molnar struggled for years to find a place in his country's still largely communist economy. Now he, like a host of other artisans and shopkeepers, displays a list of official rules, known as ''ethics for craftsmen,'' which stress quality workmanship and fair prices.

* In one of its most daring capitalist ventures, Hungary, with loans from Western banks, bought out an ailing Danish television and radio plant and kept it going as a Hungarian enterprise.

These are just two examples of creeping capitalistic practices in Eastern Europe. With the world in recession in the last few years, leaders in the East bloc have begun to talk more and more about using ''independent'' management and the need to end egalitarian treatment of the labor force.

Although capitalism remains an ideological adversary, a few Eastern European nations are beginning to adopt some of its methods. The world energy crisis and deterioration in the terms of trade are slowly compelling all the bloc countries , even the Soviet Union, to concede the need for change.

Events in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in 1980 had strengthened the hard-line opposition to reform. But the bastions may be falling.

Yugoslavia, which broke from Stalin in 1948, has been in business on its own for a long time. Now Hungary - and to a modest degree Bulgaria - are trying similar tacks.

The Yugoslav communists, soon after 1948, began to decollectivize farms, freeing several million peasant farmers to till their own land. Later the country moved steadily toward what Yugoslavs call ''market socialism.'' That system has come to feature capitalist common sense and notions of hard-nosed efficiency.

In essence, the basic means of production are still in the hands of the communist state. Yugoslavia still has a part-free, part-controlled economy - the ratio is perhaps 60-40 - and some of the current formidable difficulties stem from that. But the general flexibility and openness of the system would seem to preclude economic (or political) troubles on the Polish scale.

In the public sector the old central economic controls that still cripple most East-bloc countries have been replaced by a vast complex of incentive-targeted ''social ownership,'' or independent economic units in almost every enterprise.

Outside that complex, there are few obstructions to private initiative on a smaller scale. Whether it is in private farming - which accounts for some 85 percent of Yugoslav land and produces from 70 to 90 percent of the country's food - or the ''little man'' enterprise of the kind this writer encountered in southern Yugoslavia some years ago.

This particular example was a young man named Alija Beglerovic. He had just made a bit of local folk history by becoming his country's first private operator of a passenger coach service.

Mr. Beglerovic had spent three years as a ''guest worker'' at construction sites in West Germany to earn the money to buy his handsome little Mercedes bus.

''I worked like three men,'' he said. ''I earned more, I saved more, and so I could come home sooner.''

It took him a year to overcome resistance from a local bus company that had an option on the route to his home village but had never served it because the road was bad.

But the ''self-management'' system prevailing in Yugoslavia was on his side and he got his license. Today there are many transport entrepreneurs like him, and they operate longer as well as local services.

There are touches of capitalism everywhere in Yugoslavia. In the more advanced north, the private sector has made big inroads in the construction and transportation industries. Public-sector construction of costly hotels has been slowed because more private rooms and houses are available. Private restaurants dominate the catering industry.

The same sort of opportunity has been mushrooming in Hungary in the last few years. Well into a second decade of the furthest-reaching and most successful economic reform ever essayed within the Soviet bloc, Hungary is steadily edging closer to the Yugoslavs' pioneering model in the process.

It has set up banks and foreign-trade companies in such Western capitals as Vienna. The Hungarian holding company which owns the Danish television and radio manufacturing plant found Danish labor more costly than Hungarian labor, but its productivity was so much higher that it paid the new owners to keep the factory going where it was rather than take it back to Hungary.

One of the Kremlin's senior academic economists, Oleg Bogomolov, recently aired the view in Pravda that the Soviet Union can learn from Hungary. In agriculture - the Soviet's seemingly permanent Achilles' heel - for example, it is an object lesson in itself for the Kremlin that a small country like Hungary not only can earn $100 million yearly in farm sales to Western Europe but also export sizable wheat quotas to a Soviet Union that is always grain deficient.

Paradoxically, the developed East European countries - like the Soviet Union itself - have been and remain the most diffident and fearful about reform. Only in recent years have Czechoslovakia and East Germany seemed aware that quality and efficiency are the primary keys to the contemporary market. The Soviets snuffed out the Czechs' reform movement in 1968.

To some extent East Germany, rather than embracing Hungarian-style liberalization, still relies on traditional German efficiency and quality. Its place in the East bloc is akin to West Germany's in the Common Market.

Czechoslovakia is another matter. In the 1980s, its growth rates have slumped to the most meager in a decade. A protracted experiment with ''efficiency and standard controls'' in selected industries has not halted the stagnation of the later '70s. Lip service is paid to ''private initiative,'' which could at least ease some of the social problems, but it is kept under strict controls.

And even now, the party press is still talking about the overcentralization of agriculture - a defect as evident since 1968 as it was before.

In Prague the problems of ''quality'' remain as much political as economic. ''No really fundamental turning point in the economy can be reached without qualitative transformations in the overall social climate at all levels and in all social groups,'' said a writer in the official Economic News recently. ''(In) the prevailing social climate . . . many people are losing hope in the future.''But, in its own quiet way, Bulgaria has gone places in capitalist-style experiments that have spelled more economic benefit for people than elsewhere in the bloc, especially in neighboring Romania.

Bulgaria began with a pilot venture in management independence in a single textile factory in the mid-'60s. It ''worked'' and spread to other enterprises.

Later, the conventional kolkhozm (Soviet-style collectives) were merged on a regional basis with food processing and other, complementary industries. Agriculture itself was modernized, including the first automatic fruit harvesting machines (from Italy) seen in Eastern Europe. The results are apparent in the countryside.

Neither Bulgaria, nor Hungary - nor, for that matter, Yugoslavia - is ''going capitalist.'' In Sofia, officials still mention first the all-embracing tie with the USSR in terms of general industrialization as well as specifics like oil and politics.

But the broadening ''Western'' - quasi-capitalist - profit and viability approach to management is more evident in almost everything having to do with its economic relations and development.

How far will it all go? Will what Hungary and Bulgaria are doing spread willy-nilly through the bloc as a whole?

For 30 years the Kremlin scored Yugoslav market economics and the increasing leeway accorded private enterprise. It marked a ''return to capitalism,'' they said, and their more orthodox allies agreed.

Sometimes, what was happening in Hungary - for all its prudence in foreign policy - was eyed askance. Only in his last years did Leonid Brezhnev begin to approve. Of necessity Soviet attitudes toward Russia's own private plots began to change and Hungary's agricultural methods to be lauded.

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