THE collapse of communism in Europe has drastically altered the political landscape, especially as seen from this former imperial capital.A scant three years ago, Austria was the easternmost democracy in Europe, sharing borders with communist Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Yugoslavia. Now the first two countries are fledgling democracies trying to build market economies, and Yugoslavia is violently falling apart. The cornerstone of Austrian foreign policy was neutrality, a stance dictated not so much by choice as by necessity. The State Treaty of 1955, which led to the withdrawal of Soviet and other Allied troops, stipulated it. Now all that has changed. Soviet objections helped keep Austria out of the European Community (EC), but it has been a member in good standing of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), along with Finland, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland. The upcoming EC political and economic integration in 1992 has convinced the Austrian government that EC membership is a must. "Economically, we have links with three economic entities - southern Germany, ... Switzerland, and Lombardy [Northern Italy]," says Peter Jankowitsch, secretary of state for European economic integration. Austria does half its foreign trade in the region; EC and EFTA trade in total accounts for 75 percent. "Out of our economic interests, but also due to our basic political interests, we ought to be part of this community, and take part ... as a full partner in the shaping of European policies," says Manfred Scheich, ambassador in charge of EC negotiations. Progress on the road to EC membership came at the end of October, when the EC and EFTA agreed on the creation of a European Economic Area for free trade. But this agreement itself highlights a serious obstacle that affects free-trade negotiations worldwide: It excludes agriculture. Austrian agriculture has been protected from foreign competition. "Now we have to prepare the farmer through various methods and procedures - in many cases through direct income support," Mr. Jankowitsch says. Even before the collapse of communism, Vienna served as a gateway for traffic between Western and Eastern Europe. Austria has historic links with most Eastern European countries from the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which included all of Hungary and Czechoslovakia as well as parts of Poland, Romania, and the former Yugoslav federation. But because of the communist years, "we have really become a rather estranged kind of family," Jankowitsch notes. Even so, Austrian firms are already doing a brisk business throughout Hungary. And a superhighway under construction between Vienna and Budapest will reduce driving time between the two capitals to two hours. Nevertheless, Austrian officials say economic backwardness in the East means that trade in that direction will take a long time to develop, and only then with significant EC financial and technical assistance. Austria expects few difficulties negotiating EC admission. Mr. Scheich estimates that talks will begin in 1993, with ratification in Austria by 1994 and full membership in January 1995. The only wild card, according to Foreign Minister Alois Mock, will be the Austrian public. While polls show 51 percent of voters surveyed are in favor, that is down from more than 70 percent three years ago. The Greens, rural groups, and others are campaigning against membership. "It's our job to persuade our people," Mr. Mock says.