By most measurements, Bulgaria should be Mikhail Gorbachev's ideal test case in Eastern Europe. Unlike other Soviet allies, Bulgarians have few anticommunist hangups. There is no divisive Polish church, no angry Czechoslovak memories of a Soviet invasion, no Hungarian market-oriented economic experiment.
Bulgarians like their Russian Big Brother. The two peoples share the Orthodox Church and the Cyrillic alphabet. Russian troops liberated Bulgaria from 500 years of Turkish rule, and Bulgaria's communist leader Todor Zhivkov is fond of saying that ``the Soviet Union and Bulgaria are one organism, breathing with the same lungs.''
But when the Bulgarians tried to carry out perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), Mr. Gorbachev stepped in and slowed them down. Last October, the Soviet leader summoned Mr. Zhivkov to Moscow for an unscheduled meeting. A Tass communiqu'e afterward warned that ``it is impossible to do everything in one go,'' and added, ``the party is the only guarantee of restructuring.''
The Bulgarians listened - and put on the brakes. At a Communist Party conference last month to discuss reforms, officials struck a new tone of caution and retrenchment. Key changes would not be introduced before 1991, they indicated.
``A new model of socialism'' can only be constructed ``stage by stage,'' insisted Yordan Yotov, Politburo member and chief party ideologue. ``People who have grown up in our economy for 40 years cannot change overnight.''
The abrupt slowdown shows the difficulties that East European communists face as they try to overhaul their systems. It wasn't just that Bulgarian-style perestroika caused production breakdowns in factories, confused bureaucrats, and puzzled journalists.
What worried Moscow most were hints that the Bulgarian plans might weaken Communist Party dominance. Gorbachev wants better economic performance from his allies. But he is not willing to risk political upheaval or reduce the party's leading role in setting policy.
``The party must remain the crack force of the restructuring effort,'' Politburo member Chudomir Aleksandrov said to the press in January. ``It should lead the way but if it sees the masses lagging behind, then it should stop and wait.''
Initial Bulgarian reform plans suggested the party was prepared to race ahead. Last summer, the party leadership abruptly dissolved key economic ministries, reduced the number of regional administrative districts from 28 to nine, and called for multiple-candidate elections for local officials and factory managers.
Company managers were told to take over from the bureaucrats. Instead of being subsidized by a generous central bank, the newly autonomous managers were told to get credit from nine competing commercial banks and to prove their worth by earning profits - or going bankrupt.
The result was chaos, not greater efficiency. Since 80 percent of Bulgaria's current trade remains within the Soviet bloc, even the best managers had little room for maneuver to seek lucrative Western markets.
Frightened managers refused to take initiatives. At the Sadova Agricultural Cooperative, director Konstadine Ouchev acceded to a demand by the authorities to ``decentralize'' his operations by simply having some of his assistants switch offices with other assistants. When asked to take charge of organizing his own exports, Mr. Ouchev refused.
Managers scuttled other ideas, including multiple-candidate elections. No one contested last year's reelection of Ivan Again, director of Sofia's Institute for Pharmaceutical and Chemical Research for the past 15 years. Not even all workers were allowed to vote. ``A cleaning woman should not vote for director,'' he said. ``She doesn't have the necessary qualities.''
Even as these problems surfaced, the mass media failed to clear up the confusion. Late last year, authorities encouraged more critical reporting. But as soon as Bulgarian TV began singling out cases of mismanagement, it came under fire from the party daily Rabotnichesko Delo.
Journalists ``can't just criticize,'' explains Dimitar Deliisky, the paper's deputy editor in chief. ``We must verify and be constructive.''
True glasnost in Bulgaria could pose a special threat to the present leadership. Party leader Zhivkov is 76 and has been in power for 33 years. As with other older East European leaders, truthful discussion of the past translates into a discussion of the failures of his long rule.
At the January conference, Zhivkov suggested injecting competition into the system by limiting party leaders and factory managers to serving a maximum of two terms. But Boyan Treikov, head of the official BTA News Agency, insisted that this rule would begin to apply to Zhivkov himself only after 1990.
Given these attitudes, it is not surprising that growing cynicism surrounds predictions of a new era in Sofia. Many ask if aging East-bloc leaders can carry out glasnost and perestroika. And even if they are serious, others wonder whether Gorbachev will let them reform.