As East-West tension builds, Moscow is leaning harder on its satellites to conform and toe the line. This process is shattering long-held illusions about the Soviet bloc and revealing Eastern Europe as a much misunderstood place.
Despite the praise bestowed on Hungary and Romania by Vice-President George Bush in a major policy address in September in Vienna, Hungary's society is proving to be less open than many have thought, and Romania's so-called independent foreign policy has been shown to be far from independent.
Bulgaria, on the other hand - strongly criticized by Mr. Bush - is supporting a nuclear-free zone in the Balkans, in the hope that such a treaty might make it more difficult for the Soviets to station nuclear weapons on its soil.
* Hungary. The regime of Janos Kadar receives much praise for its tolerance of dissidents. But in the last year, says Gabor Demzky, a young Hungarian activist, the government has cracked down.
Demzky is the Hungarian-language publisher of E. P. Thompson's ''Beyond the Cold War,'' widely read by those in West Europe's peace movement. Ever since December l982 - shortly after Yuri Andropov came to power in Moscow - he and others in underground publishing in Hungary have been continually harassed.
''There seems to be more control now, maybe as a result of pressure from outside,'' a diplomat in Budapest reported.
On Sept. 24, Demzky says, he was beaten by Budapest police. The incident is a far cry from Hungary's attitude toward dissidents a year ago. At that time, the government was turning a blind eye to samizdat (underground) publishing, and the Western press was publishing accounts about Andropov's affection for the Hungarian experiment in liberalization.
Economic reform is continuing in Hungary. And the government hopes to provide voters with an authentic choice of candidates for the 1985 parliamentary elections.
* Romania. By the standards of the Soviet bloc, the Romanian approach toward world affairs is individualistic. Said a high-ranking Romanian government official: ''The Soviets can't understand how one of their allies can put them on the same footing with the Americans.''
But, at a time when Romania's President Nicolae Ceausescu is issuing new decrees that further restrict private ownership and personal freedom, the question arises: Just how individualistic is Romania's foreign policy and what does the US get out of it?
''It is a difficult foreign policy choice (for the US). No knowledgeable person is under any illusions about the true nature of this (the Romanian) regime,'' said one diplomat. ''The term 'independent' does not apply to Romania's foreign policy, it's not even quasi-independent.''
Romania's much-heralded initiatives on nuclear disarmament provide a glimpse into the dynamics of its diplomacy. Originally, Romania was proposing what a Foreign Ministry official in Bucharest called a ''radical zero option'' - no deployment of NATO's Pershing II and cruise missiles, and the withdrawal and destruction of Soviet SS-20s.
But in recent weeks, Romanian disarmament policy has gone through a series of emendations to bring it into line with Soviet policy. This process, sources say, was precipitated by several visits to Bucharest by Soviet officials, including Gen. A. A. Yepishev, a highly regarded figure in Soviet military and political circles and a former ambassador to Romania.
(It had been assumed that Warsaw Pact Commander Viktor Kulikov's failure to see President Ceausescu recently indicated a cooling in Soviet-Romanian relations. But Marshal Kulikov had already met with Ceausescu several times before and at the same time as the Romanian leader met with other Soviet officials such as General Yepishev.)
The results of these unpublicized encounters has been that Romania now calls for the withdrawal and destruction of Soviet SS-20s - but only down to the number of British and French missiles. A Romanian disarmament expert admitted that ''with our proposals, the imbalance would remain, but at least it would prevent the superpowers from moving to an even higher stage'' of proliferation.
Said one diplomat, ''It took some work, but Ceausescu has now climbed aboard with the rest of the Warsaw Pact leaders.''
* Bulgaria. The Sofia government has always been ''aboard'' in terms of its foreign policy, which Mr. Bush condemned for being ''determined in Moscow.'' But that is not to mean that Bulgarian and Soviet views always converge.
Diplomats in Sofia suggest - and Bulgarian officials do not deny - that Bulgaria is even less enthusiastic than Czechoslovakia and East Germany about nuclear weapons going on its soil - especially since introduction of SS-22 missiles would put Soviet soldiers in Bulgaria for the first time since 1947.
''SS-22s are going to be installed in the GDR (East Germany) and Czechoslovakia as a means to answer the NATO threat. But is Bulgaria giving up the idea of a nuclear-free zone in the Balkans? No,'' said Boyan Trikov, director of the Bulgarian Telegraphic Agency, and as near to an spokesman as Bulgaria has.
Pressed further on the question of missiles in Bulgaria, Trikov said: ''The SS-22s will be deployed, but only with the agreement of the GDR and Czechoslovakia. This is not an unimportant detail. The impression that the Soviet Union can deploy nuclear weapons wherever it likes - that's just not so, '' he said.
Mr. Bush, whose speech served to outline US policy in central and Eastern Europe, further criticized Bulgaria for continuing ''to flagrantly violate the most fundamental human rights.''
Yet, compared to such jackbooted regimes as Romania and Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria is guilty of minor human rights violations, among the most serious of which had been the refusal to grant exit visas for the purposes of family reunifications in the US. But this matter was largely resolved at a recent meeting between President Todor Zhivkov and the US ambassador in Sofia. The Bulgarian President agreed to grant the visas.
What the latest events in these three countries demonstrates is that long-entertained assumptions about Eastern Europe need constantly to be revised.
Kadarism may not be institutionalized in Hungary, Bulgaria is not a clone of the Soviet Union, and Romania's fierce sense of independence may not always spell abhorrence of Soviet domination. As a joke making the rounds at the University in Bucharest suggests:
''If only the Russians invaded, then we would eat like the Czechs and get passports like the Hungarians.''