CHANGE in the East bloc looks as if it is leaving nothing untouched by reform - least of all, perhaps, the Soviet alliance itself and its military arm, the Warsaw Pact. The economic relationship, in the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon), has already run out of steam. Even ``conservative'' regimes in Prague and elsewhere seek openings to the West to help them out of economic stagnation. How long, then, can the military alliance survive without radical modification?
The Warsaw Pact was the response to West Germany's joining NATO in the mid-1950's. To Moscow, that was an alliance of United States ``imperialism'' and German ``revanchism.'' This was the Soviet justification for intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968. But under Mikhail Gorbachev that has been widely dismissed as no justification at all.
Of the five Warsaw Pact members who participated in the 1968 invasion, in fact, Hungary and Poland have recently condemned it. Moscow has come close - although not yet officially - to conceding the invasion was a mistake. It has, however, officially repudiated the Brezhnev doctrine of ``limited sovereignty'' used to excuse it.
Add Romania, which had nothing to do with the 1968 invasion, and you have, in effect, four Warsaw Pact states against the intervention and only two, East Germany and Bulgaria, who are not. (To these of course, must be added Prague's postinvasion leadership, whose legitimacy would be destroyed by reevaluation.)
In 1956, Hungarian leader Imre Nagy's espousal of neutrality prompted an otherwise reform-minded Nikita Khrushchev to crush Hungary's first ``freedom'' movement. It is a mark of the depth of Gorbachev's ``new thinking'' that the Hungarians now openly propagate Austrian-style neutrality. They are also considering following their western neighbor into a link with the European Community (EC) some time in the 1990s.
Meantime, the Warsaw Pact remains, but the Soviet Union is making unilateral troop withdrawals, and East Europeans have begun defense cuts of their own.
The new Solidarity government has prudently affirmed a continued place for Poland in the Warsaw Pact. But Hungary acted quickly on the Warsaw Pact's summit pronouncement in July that members have a right to their own independent foreign policy. Budapest, in fact, has just proposed an ``initiative'' plan which can only be seen as a basis for future neutrality and, until then, a greatly reduced scale for joint pact activity.
Beside reducing by half the 28 missile-launching sites currently on Hungarian soil, the plan envisages removal of Soviet forces posted along Hungary's borders with Austria and Yugoslavia to make way for a neutral security zone with those two countries.
Modification of the pact also is clearly on the Gorbachev agenda. He has frequently talked of turning it from a military and political alliance into primarily a vehicle for political cooperation.
``Life changes and probably this alliance too will be transformed,'' he told the July Warsaw Pact summit, ``Alliances are not for ever.''
At a critical time in the Soviet Union's own perestroika (restructuring), however, this could still prove academic. But the intent is clearly there.