Crimean "vacations" for the Soviet-bloc comrades have come around again, but this summer they have taken a new twist. For years, the East European leaders -- with only one exception -- have joined Russia's Leonid Brezhnev there, for all the world like a packaged tour. It always looked as though they went for an ad hoc political summit rather than the suntanning.
The exception was Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu.In foreign policy he is often the odd man out in the communist alliance, rather like maverick France in NATO.
He has never stayed away altogether. He doesn't want to be that far out of line nor to be ganged up on. So he usually goes to the Brezhnev "Camp David" after his East European pals have gone home.
But this summer the package tour for the group of bloc chums was out. Ceausescu and his colleagues came one by one. beginning in late July, Janos Kadar (Hungary), Gustav Husak (Czechoslovakia), and Edward Gierek (Poland) took "official holidays" in the Crimea and -- as the communiques put it -- discussed the problems of their respective countries with their Soviet host.
Mr. Ceausescu will be doing the same this week. And he has tucked in his pocket a freshly signed trade-boosting agreement with the West European Common Market that might have met a chorus of criticism from envious allies had they been around when he arrived.
For their part, the Russians just now may be content to avoid bloc gatherings , however informal, even without Romania. Such get-togethers these days might not prove as "monolithic" as they would like.
That leaves Mr. Brezhnev more time to focus on the state of an alliance that is much less unified, and much more troubled by Afghanistan, than might appear on the surface.
For example, Mr. Husak's Czechoslovakia seems to offer Moscow no major problem 12 years after the brief Dubcek reform period. Hard-liners still command and ensure as orthodox a regime as the Kremlin's sternest dogmatists could desire. But a pending economic efficiency drive coupled with austerity programs this year and next could well rekindle old pressures for reform.
Mr. Kadar's Hungary presents an altogether different kind of question, and the Russians cannot be wholly sure of the answer. Although its loyalty to the East bloc is not questioned, Hungary has achieved a degree of "liberalization" that the Soviets would not want to see copied throughout the East bloc.
Alone among East European leaders Mr. Kadar has skillfully combined keen regard for national (i.e., Hungarian) feeling and its traditional westward inclinations with a prudent bloc loyalty that leaves the Russians little cause for ideological worry.
It has added up over the years to a domestic stability and tolerance -- including some recent new concessions to the churches -- absent elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
Prudence vis-a-vis Moscow meant following Russia's rejection of a trade treaty with the United States that tied most-favored-nation tariffs to free Jewish emigration.
Hungary does relatively well on human rights and emigration. Its US relations have developed well in recent years. It could have the favorable tariffs tomorrow if it chose. But it decided to wait for "big brother."
Romania, on the other hand, was not deterred by the Soviet Union's example. It accepted MFN trade ties with the United States, even though they depend on its maintaining a better record on emigration.
Yet, of two, Hungary presents a much more serious challenge to Soviet thinking. It shows a meaningful degree of internal "liberalization" that Romania does not.
It will not have escaped Mr. Brezhnev's attention that lately the Polish news media -- in an exceedingly sensitive domestic situation -- are increasingly citing the Hungarian pattern. Nor that Poland is even more Western-oriented by intellectual and historic sentiment despite -- and even because of -- its latter-day economic dependence on the Soviet Union.
There are critical pressures all over Eastern Europe. The current Polish mood or the Hungarian example could spread to Czechoslovakia, "safe" as it might seem. Or even to Romania, where the "independent" foreign policy has so far brought singularly few gains to the ordinary Romanian worker or consumer.