Bulgaria, smallest of the East-bloc nations, has stolen a head start on its East European allies and adopted a far-reaching economic reform in which the market is to replace the classic form of communist plan almost entirely.
The reform is a bold move toward a sensibly, realistically planned economy, with a scope for management and a regard for the work force that Poland might have achieved by now had it not been for the escalation of confrontation politics.
Amid East-bloc concern over impoverished Poland, Bulgaria's step was announced quietly a few days ago. It could prove the most notable development in the area in many years.
Other East Europeans - both developed countries like Czechoslovakia and East Germany and much less developed ones like Romania - have looked askance at the Polish economic breakdown.
Poland itself has talked for 18 crisis-laden months about reform and still has done nothing about it.
But Bulgaria, which is often regarded by its allies as the poor Balkan relation, has got on with the job. Last week it unveiled a ''new economic mechanism'' to make all enterprises strictly profitable and independent.
Bulgaria's measures, to be applied forthwith, were detailed Jan. 13 at a conference of prominent persons engaged in the Bulgarian economy - ministers, experts, managers.
The report delivered by Grisha Filipov, who is chairman of the Council of Ministers and acknowledged to be second only to President Todor Zhivkov in the Communist Party leadership, was published at the weekend.
Mr. Filipov called the reform ''a great event'' in the life of the party and the Bulgarian people.'' An outside observer might add that it is an event for Eastern Europe, too.
It is likely to prove as significant as the Hungarian reform of the late 1960 s, from which this new Bulgarian model obviously derives more than the name ''new economic mechanism.''