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Change at the top expected to boost reform in Hungary. New premier likely to open door to opposition parties

The idea was taboo only a few months ago, something so removed from reality as to never come up even in private coffeehouse conservations. Now it is front page news in the official press. The idea is nothing less than transforming this East European communist country into a multiparty democracy.

Some leading Hungarian communists say the switchover could come within two years. Most others put the change in the more distant future.

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Either way, the mere fact that a Communist Party is considering the possibility of opposition parties and free elections represents an unprecedented development in this part of the world, showing just how far the example of the Soviet Union's glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) has stretched the limits of the possible.

``Reform is moving so fast here, sometimes I can't believe it,'' says Ivan Lipovecz, editor-in-chief of the respected HVG weekly. ``It's all of a sudden like a dam burst.''

An important parliamentary meeting to pick a new prime minister this week is expected to give another boost to rushing rapids of reform. Communist Party leader Karoly Grosz will resign as head of the government, a move designed to take the party out of day-to-day running of the country. Mr. Grosz will remain party chief.

Leading candidates for the office of prime minister are Miklos Nemeth, Rezso Nyers, or Imre Pozsgay. All three are radical reformers. Whoever is chosen will be empowered by parliament to carry out a belt-tightening economic plan closing down money-losing state industries while giving more freedom to private entrepreneurs.

These dramatic steps toward capitalism are more than matched by the momentous debate about democracy. The new government chief must prepare legislation on the right of association, which will be submitted to parliament in December.

Minister of Justice Kalman Kulcsar first said this law would allow the formation of new parties. He then said, no, it only would permit unofficial groups to be recognized. Full-fledged parties would have to wait until 1990 as part of a revised Constitution.

The uncertainty is typical. Hungary's ruling party is riding a wave designed to relax its monopoly of power - but by how much? The communist leadership seems to have no clear vision where they are leading their country.

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``We know we must have pluralism,'' says Janos Barabas, Budapest party secretary. ``That doesn't necessarily mean a multiparty system, though it could develop in that direction.''

By standards in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, or Romania, Mr. Barabas would be considered a softy. By Hungarian standards, however, he is considered something of a hard-liner.

He supported former leader Janos Kadar's ``goulash'' communism, which combined a paternalistic ruling style with limited freedom for private entrepreneurs. Now he accepts the need for much more radical reform.

``Our old model of socialism was based on an unhappy mixture of Czarist traditional and Hapsburg enlightened absolutism,'' he explains. ``In the fast-developing world of computers and high-tech, this mixture no longer works.''

The communist system's shortcomings, which propelled Mikhail Gorbachev to power in the Soviet Union, also forced a leadership shift in Hungary. In May, Mr. Kadar was ousted. Grosz, a figure cut straight from the youthful, take-charge Gorbachev mold, took over and started breaking the old taboos.

``Kadar managed the art of the possible, reforming when reform was out of fashion,'' says one Western diplomat. ``Grosz can go much faster now because the world clock finally is moving in the direction of reform.''

Hungary looks like the place where Europe's East-West divide might crumble. It borders neutral Austria, the diplomat notes, so the Soviets could safely withdraw their troops and let reform here reach a crescendo.

In return for cast-iron security guarantees to the Soviets, some hopeful Hungarians envisage enjoying new freedoms, including a democratic government and capitalist economy.

``We must create a new `third way',''says Sandor Csoori, leader of the newly legalized opposition group Democratic Forum. ``It would be free of both East and West just like the Finns.''

Such thinking remains premature. Magazine editor Lipovecz says the Warsaw Pact alliance, along with criticism of the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, remain taboo. Police broke up a demonstration last month in memory of the invasion. A unilateral withdrawal of the 65,000 Soviet troops still in Hungary looks unlikely.

``We'd like to see the withdrawal, but it depends on what happens with wider East-West relations,'' says Jozsef Benyi, Deputy Foreign Minister. Mr. Benyi rejects the Finlandization model. ``Finland is neutral, we will remain loyal allies of the Soviet Union.''

In the Gorbachev era, however, loyal Soviet allies are able to forge closer ties to the West. Since taking power, Grosz has become the first Hungarian communist leader to visit the United States. He also has traveled to Great Britain, West Germany, and just last week, France, while signing a new trade agreement with the Common Market.

``Gorbachev has opened up the socialist world to new types of cooperation,'' Mr. Benyi concludes. ``These trips are designed so the West can discover a new Hungary, a country which is fast reforming its political and economic system so it can be a reliable partner.''

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