THE political changes in Hungary over the past week are both dramatic and dizzying - and they put Hungary in a neck-and-neck tie with Poland for most-emancipated-nation status in the East Bloc. Hungary's new 24-member executive council is made up almost entirely of young, true-blue reformers - shaped by opposition leader Imre Pozsgay - rather than older functionaries. By dissolving the old party and coming up with a new ``socialist'' one, questions from skeptical Hungarians about how serious change will be are put to rest for now. You know things are serious when the leading newspaper drops its slogan ``Workers of the World Unite.''
The new government, led by centrist Reszo Nyers, will stress a multiparty system, a lessening of Marxist rhetoric, and, most of all, a free-market economic model featuring private ownership and more open markets. ``What is socialism?'' asked the most popular joke in Hungary last year: ``The longest and most painful road from capitalism to capitalism.''
It's Mikhail Gorbachev that may gain the most from Hungary's reform-revolution. Hungary appears to be the best example so far of the kind of peaceful, stable perestroika the Soviet leader wants to duplicate elsewhere.
Hungary is in fact a model Gorbachev now needs, given instability everywhere else. Hungary uniquely reformed itself from within the party. There was no messy grass-roots Solidarity movement challenging the USSR. Nor is Hungary (yet) the economic basketcase that Poland is. There is no hot ethnic unrest in Hungary as in the Baltics or the Ukraine. Further, Hungary's leaders are malleable in a way orthodox East Germans and Czech leaders are not. (Nor is reform in Hungary a geopolitical threat, as in East Germany - Russia's ``front line.'')
Whether or not the changes are enough to gain popular support will become clearer in June's general election. Liberal ideas have bubbled in Budapest for two decades. Solzhenitsyn and Orwell are sold on the street - unlike East Germany where some Russian newspapers are banned. So far the changes seem radical enough.
The big question is the economy. In ``The Uses of Adversity'' Timothy Garton Ash captures the spirit in Hungary: ``Incredible and surreal are the words that punctuate every conversation about politics, though not about economics for which the leitmotifs are disastrous and hopeless.''
Hungarians are braced for higher unemployment and lower living standards as the economy is decentralized. The US can help with debt refinancing.
A more open system requires a leap of faith. But Hungarians seem to have the courage for it.