Hungary serves as sounding board for possible Soviet-bloc reforms

Hungary, whose Communist Party leadership met recently to plot the next phase of its economic reform, is counting on the continuing approval of its old acquaintance in the Kremlin.

But there is some concern as to how much longer that approval might last. It is not that Hungarian officials think Yuri Andropov might change his mind - they are concerned about the worsening East-West situation.

In the six months since he became leader of the Soviet Communist Party, Mr. Andropov has demonstrated several times that he has not forgotten his knowledge and experience of Hungary. He was ambassador there in the 1950s.

Moreover, he seems not averse to drawing on that experience as he grapples with the Soviet Union's own economic problems and the additional - and burdensome - problems of its client states in Eastern Europe.

After coming to power in November 1982, he lost little time in handing the Hungarians a bouquet for the common sense of their ''New Economic Mechanism.''

In recent weeks, that approval has been more overt, with Budapest becoming something of a sounding board for the Soviet Union's view of worsening East-West politics as well as what is to be done to stimulate the Soviet bloc's flagging economic community, Comecon.

One of Mr. Andropov's foreign affairs counselors, Vadim Zagladin, was interviewed at great length on Hungarian television about the growing confrontation between the White House and the Kremlin over new US missiles scheduled to begin deployment in Europe beginning late this year.

Soviet appearances on East European TV screens are nothing new. But it was unusual to have a high-ranking official of the Soviet Central Committee talking directly from the box to Hungarians on the biggest and most topical international issue of the day.

(Mr. Zagladin did take the opportunity to deliver Russia's most acerbic warning yet that it ''will need'' to deploy nuclear weapons able to reach the United States within minutes if NATO does place new US missiles in Europe. But he covered a lot of ground with a lot of candor in his 30-minute appearance, and it made good viewing.)

Other Andropov experts have had a lot to say through the Hungarian news media recently about Comecon cooperation and improvement of economic management in all the East European states, including by implication the Soviet Union. They use Hungary as an example of how they might proceed.

The Hungarians are accustomed to commendation from Western reporters and economists for reforms Budapest initiated 15 years ago. But last month Magyar Hirlap, one of Budapest's major dailies, carried long interviews with two eminent Soviet economists.

Each put a positive value on Hungary's domestic methods and, in effect, on some of its ideas for removing Comecon's built-in drawbacks in terms of intracommunity trade, development cooperation, and financing.

It was not the first time Oleg Bogomolov, a top Soviet economist and academic , had expressed the view that the USSR itself might learn from Hungary's reform. But in Magyar Hirlap, he seemed to echo what Hungarian experts have been saying for a long time about Comecon's clumsy and disadvantageous monetary system.

The paper's other interviewee, Vadim M. Trapesnikov, lauded economic practice in both Hungary and East Germany. It is possible the latter, where reorganization and not dramatic reform prevails, was mentioned as a cautionary balance to the Hungarian reform.

But what was said by both professors and the fact it was said in Hungary shows not only approval for the Hungarian way but also the possibility that under Andropov the Kremlin may be ready to see significant flexibility in the bloc.

Hungary seems to have put last year's acute liquidity problem behind it, thanks to a determined freeze on wages and living standards. The New Economic Mechanism meant Hungary could accommodate this despite the political disfavor it engendered, and the country was able to rebuild confidence with both the International Monetary Fund and Western banks and secure continued backing.

Their principal concern at this juncture is tied to the international scene.

The long-awaited Comecon summit - the first parley in 12 years to bring together heads of state to consider the bloc's economy - is believed to be scheduled for mid-May in Moscow.

The Hungarians expect to hear a lot about the need for better integration within Comecon. But they see development disparities between individual East European countries as too great for radical departures to be made yet.

Their primary goal is to keep Comecon trade doors ''open'' to the West and to other countries.

On that score, what worries them most is the possibility that between now and then both the world economy and the tensions between the US and the Soviet Union could worsen further.

That, they say, would put a brake on the Hungarian reform itself as well as Hungarian-style reform elsewhere in the bloc (including the Soviet Union), no matter how much Mr. Andropov might approve of them.

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