Hungary's prime minister and Communist Party general secretary, Karoly Grosz, arrives in Washington tomorrow for meetings with President Reagan and other prominent leaders. The visit is a symbol of Eastern Europe's opening to the United States in an era of glasnost. Grosz is the first East European party boss to come here in 10 years.
It is also important for Mr. Grosz, who was just named to Hungary's top party post in May. Grosz is reviving Hungary's image as the most reform-minded country in Eastern Europe, say US specialists on the region. He is the first head of Hungary's Communist Party to visit Washington and the first Hungarian prime minister to visit in over 40 years.
``Our relations with Hungary are the best'' of any of the countries in the Soviet bloc, a senior administration official says.
Hungary's progressive stance on economic and political reform, he says, puts that country on ``the cutting edge of the US policy problem'' - how to encourage lasting political and human rights reform along with economic modernization.
Grosz will be seeking a US blessing for his introduction of more-capitalist principles into Hungary's socialist economy, his desire for more economic integration with the West, and promotion of limited political pluralism, say US officials.
``He wants to be perceived as the key East European reformer and to give Hungary the image of an attractive partner - of a European partner, not just an East European one,'' says a well-placed US official.
``We are willing to give him blessings,'' says the senior official. ``But we want him to realize that we have not forgotten that Hungary remains a communist country. We think they have a way to go in terms of institutionalizing guarantees of freedom, of dissent.... There are clear limits on what we will be able to do [to help] economically to the extent that political reform lags.''
As East European regimes move to bolster sagging economies, US officials are arguing that economic reform cannot succeed without political reform. Political consensus is required for the austerity that will necessarily accompany the transition from inefficient state-dominated economies to more hybrid systems, they say.
Grosz and his colleagues seem to realize this, officials say, but the debate in Hungary, and elsewhere in the East bloc, is how much liberalization and how fast.
Grosz's pragmatic approach makes Hungary an experiment of sorts for his neighbors, US officials say. Hungary is praised by Soviet reformers, including Mikhail Gorbachev, as a model from which to learn.
The importance of political consensus and legitimacy is highlighted by the contrasts between Hungary and Poland, US specialists say.
``In Poland the regime doesn't have political support. So when it tries to take needed economic measures, the people don't support them,'' says one expert. ``Grosz wants to avoid the Polish impasse. He seems to see that his population will have to be willing to save and sacrifice.''
The added kicker for Eastern Europe is a deep concern about instability. ``The Soviets say the Brezhnev doctrine is dead, but no one out there believes it,'' the expert says. ``It's hard for them to believe that a general breakdown of order would not bring the Soviets in, so the leadership really seeks reform with stability.''
To meet his goal, US analysts say Grosz apparently intends to let ``reformers'' in Hungary's leadership play a serious role and to allow more political debate and dissent. But, they add, there are clear limits.
``It's extraordinary how they've opened up the political system under party control ... but so much of it is reversible,'' the senior official says.
``Grosz comes out of the conservative tradition, but he has built alliances with reformers and hugged the center'' since becoming prime minister last year, says a top regional specialist. ``He has seized the hot iron to restore the vitality and buoyancy to Hungary's lagging economy,'' the specialist says, but ``it is not yet clear whether Grosz understands how much is required to get popular consensus on needed reforms.''
Hungary is also on the front lines of East European nations pushing for lessened military tensions in Europe, US officials say. Hungary is pressing for talks on reduction of conventional troops.
Two weeks ago the US disclosed still-confidential Soviet-Hungarian discussions to withdraw some of the 65,000 Soviet troops in Hungary. The US revelations apparently preempted a unilateral announcement by the Warsaw Pact. The troop withdrawal is reportedly still on the agenda, US experts say, but the East will probably now link it to a parallel gesture by NATO. The US disclosure was apparently aimed at avoiding a propaganda coup for the East bloc.
But one specialist notes that in terms of Hungarian politics, Grosz's predecessor would probably have balked at the withdrawal, because the troops were seen as a sign of Soviet support. Grosz, however, apparently favored the move as one that would be popular at home and save the cost of supporting the troops.