One of the most intriguing aspects of this era of perestroika (restructuring) and improved East-West relations is the way in which Eastern Europe is beginning to regain an identity. Soon after World War II, the Iron Curtain divided Europe, and the East became an amorphous conglomerate of countries. It later became known only for local national explosions at approximately 12-year intervals.
Following these periods of unrest, all reverted to regional conformity with the Soviet Union. So it was after Hungary's uprising (1956); the Prague Spring (1968); and, though not so completely, Solidarity's defeat in Poland in 1981.
Then - when everything in Eastern Europe was stagnating - Mikhail Gorbachev entered, signaling a ``new deal'' in international affairs. This development led to easier relations between the superpowers. It also opened up a new path to individualism for East Europeans.
Last summer, Hungary revealed that the Soviet military presence in its country was under review. Most Western reactions dismissed the idea that even Mr. Gorbachev was ready to withdraw troops from Hungary, without some Western quid pro quo.
But Hungary appears to have known what was going on well before Gorbachev's announcement that six divisions were to be removed from East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary.
Why not also from Poland? The simple explanation is that Poland - the corridor through which Germany has twice attacked the Soviet Union - is in a different category of Soviet military thinking.
In Poland's present unsettled situation, Polish forces, though the best equipped and trained of the East European armies, could not be relied upon alone. Yet Poland might well be brought into the picture, as Eastern Europe continues to look less like a faceless forward area of the Soviet military and economic system and returns to the map of Europe as a stable region with differing national interests.
Due regard for Soviet security interests is, of course, Gorbachev's sine qua non for such independence.
Hungary is already the case par excellence. This year it is taking a big leap forward toward a pluralist, democratized political system.
It is also calling boldly for fundamental change in Comecon, the East bloc's trading community. It says: Either Comecon remains stuck with its outworn concept of ``mutual aid'' or it turns itself into a genuine East-bloc ``common market.''
Budapest's attitude vis `a vis the Soviets in essential ideology and in terms of security remain unchanged. But no state within the East bloc has presented so clear a national image since the Yugoslavs broke out of the bloc in 1948.
Poland, at last, seems to be moving cautiously in the same direction. A party Central Committee meeting Dec. 20-21 removed six ``conservatives'' from the ruling Politburo and replaced them with known ``liberals'' and young reformers.
Some of the speeches at this meeting revealed the strength of the hard-line opposition to the ``constructive opposition'' Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski has been appealing for. But the leadership, nonetheless, announced an immediate reevaluation of its position on Solidarity. Significantly, Prime Minister Mieczyslaw Rakowski called his old antagonist, Lech Walesa a ``political realist,'' as though the leader of the outlawed trade union had never been the ``unperson'' with whom the government disdained to talk for seven years.
For the time being, East Germany and Romania still balk at perestroika. The Czechoslovak regime, thus far just as reluctant, is now feeling the pinch and necessity to make some kind of start.
Vasil Bilak, a leading anti-Dubcek hawk in 1968, has stepped down. His successor as party ideologist is cast in the same mold. Spokesmen still scoff at rehabilitation of the lesser folk purged after 1968, let alone of Alexander Dubcek himself. But, in politics, ``never'' is a boomerang word as Warsaw's U-turn on Walesa shows. Human rights gatherings have begun to be tolerated. And a new premier has begun to act like a reformer.
It is not a case of Prague's sudden conversion to perestroika and glasnost (openness). There is another consideration which, finally, all the East Europeans must take into account.
The Hungarians openly admit that the European Community's plan to turn its Common Market into a single market by 1992 set alarm bells ringing in Budapest. No doubt among Prague's backroom economists too. Hence Hungary's accelerated drive for an efficient market economy in order not to find itself cut off from this single European market when it comes about.
In his Dec. 7 speech to the United Nations, Gorbachev showed his awareness that diversity in Eastern Europe does not have to be at odds with Soviet security interests. Hard-liners in Prague may fear Soviet troop withdrawals as a likely destabilizing element. Gorbachev, however, sees reform as a stabilizing factor, and a stable Eastern Europe is essential to his own purpose.