MANY observers of Eastern Europe divide East bloc leaders into hard-liners and reformers - with the rulers of Romania and East Germany obviously belonging to the former category, and the rulers of Poland and Hungary to the latter. But if it is clear what is meant by hard-liner, it is increasingly unclear what is meant by reformer. In Hungary, for example, the Communist Party seems engaged in an elaborate game of waffling. Or, to put it another way, it appears to be doing the political equivalent of the Hungarian national dance, the Csardas: taking two steps to the ``right'' when it promises a multi-party system, then taking two steps to the ``left'' when it says that all such parties must obey the Hungarian constitution, which says the Communist Party has a ``leading role.''
What do we make of a country's leadership when, during the course of one week in December, a Politburo member, Imre Pozsgay, said that Hungary should have a multi-party system like Austria's, and a few days later party leader Karoly Grosz said a Western-style multi-party system is out of the question?
Such mixed signals lend themselves to a number of interpretations. The most obvious is that the leadership is trying both to reassure the Soviets that its reforms will not undermine party control and reassure the West that Hungary is still committed to slowly leaving the Soviet orbit.
The mixed signals may also be a sign of deep rifts within the party leadership. In recent weeks, this disagreement has surfaced in arguments about the meaning of the 1956 revolution. On Jan. 28, Mr. Pozsgay said that the revolution should be called ``a popular uprising'' rather than a counter-revolution. Not only did he criticize the party's view, but he remarked that ``from the moment the dictatorship of the proletariat was proclaimed, the workers' participation in the exercise of power ceased to exist.''
Pozsgay seems to be attempting to create an independent base for himself, positioning himself as a transition figure if the party truly falters. Mr. Grosz mildly rebuked Pozsgay for his views, yet Pozsgay seemed to emerge unscathed from a party plenum convened last weekend to discuss, among other things, the question of a multi-party system.
After the plenum, Grosz reaffirmed the point that all Hungarian political parties must subscribe to socialism - that is, recognize the leading role of the communist party. But where does that leave Pozsgay, who said Hungary's political system should be like Austria's?
The party no doubt would like to curb Pozsgay, but if it does so, it risks further alienating a disgruntled citizenry already unhappy with economic reforms that will lead to higher prices and more unemployment. In other words, if the party does not at least pay lip service to political reform, it's economic reforms could provoke worker unrest.
Political reform, moreover, is also welling up from below. In recent months, a number of independent groups have emerged, as well as several independent unions. Most interesting is the revival of the Smallholders' Party, the political party that held joint power with the communists in the early post-war years. So far, the Smallholders, who are not socialist, have been allowed to function as an independent group. Whether they will be allowed to function as a political party remains to be seen.
Finally, there is the Soviet factor. Would the Soviets intervene again in Hungary if ``bourgeois'' forces became stronger and demanded Western-style elections? Most Western observers assume the threshold for intervention is much higher than in 1956, but how high is it? Last week a Soviet official, Oleg Bogomolov, an economist at the USSR Academy of Sciences, left open the possibility of Hungary becoming a Western-style ``bourgeois democracy'' while remaining a member of the Warsaw Pact.
Whatever the future brings, there have been substantial changes already. In recent months, the Hungarian government has radically revised its pitch to the Hungarian people. Under former leader Janos Kadar the party promised that if the people would be quiet politically, it would provide them with a better standard of living. Under Grosz, the party promises that if the people remain stoic under economic hardship it will allow them to have some kind of multi-party system.