An unsettling choice for Soviets' communist bloc: how much capitalist help?
Although Soviet Communist Party chief Yuri Andropov is talking ''change'' in the Soviet economy and the East bloc as a whole, a long-heralded summit to get the process under way remains stalled.
Such a summit to reinvigorate Comecon, the East bloc trading community, was first suggested two years ago by the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, but as yet no date has been set for it. The latest preparatory meeting, which involved Central Committee secretaries, was held in February.
In the past five years, East Europe has seen declining economic growth rates, frighteningly high debts with Western banks, steadily less advantageous terms of trade within Comecon, and the shadow of Poland's economic collapse across the bloc.
But it is an open question - for all of Mr. Andropov's hints at ''change'' - how far the Kremlin might countenance an economic shift away from the communist model.
Comecon is split roughly between:
* Those who still favor direct management of the economy, with the state making the decisions. Czechoslovakia, for example, rather than venturing toward a free market, wants to ''improve'' the existing system - as its ''set of measures'' two years ago was designed to do. Like the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia fears the political impact of economic reform.
* Those countries which have gone over to ''indirect'' management, notably Hungary, or which are beginning to, such as Bulgaria. (Yugoslavia, of course, has done more than any other country in this regard, but it is only an associate member of Comecon and thus has limited opportunity to influence strategic policy.)
The Hungarians see Comecon's problem as a simple choice between an ''open'' or ''closed'' community. They leave no doubt that their choice is the former - and for Comecon as a whole.
For them, today's economic truth is that, however much it might once have seemed possible for cooperation within Comecon to replace capitalist connections , meaningful links with the capitalist and developing worlds have become absolutely ''necessary.''
This means an ''open'' Hungary within the framework of an economically united communist bloc. Hungary wants a Comecon of increasingly open marketing methods and a currency that is truly convertible within the community. The fictitious ruble system that currently prevails in dealings within Comecon works largely to Soviet advantage.
Oil prices are the most recent example of the problems troubling Comecon. The price reductions for oil produced in the West - which saw the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries lower its price to $29 a barrel - must have seemed a last straw for the East Europeans, whose budgets are being strained primarily by high energy costs.
At present they pay $27 a barrel under a special arrangement for Soviet oil. Fixed on an adjustable average of world prices in recent years, the Soviet price is scheduled to rise to $29 next year - this despite falling international prices.
At a recent meeting in East Berlin, East Europeans were reported to have asked the Soviet Union to reduce its price to them so that they would not lose what has been a decided economic advantage. The Soviets, of course, would lose a favorable political gloss on their economic dealings with their allies.
To preserve that, they might make some concession, but they would almost certainly require the East Europeans to invest still more in the development of Soviet extractive industries (notably oil and natural gas). For some years such investment has been a condition for maintaining supplies at cheaper prices.
Informed Yugoslavs speak of a harsh question of ''real change'' or just ''repair'' confronting all the Comecon states, the Soviet Union included. They seem to expect the Soviets to come down on the side of ''corrections'' rather than for any bold and effective changes in thinking and practice.
Comecon's integration, in the Soviet view, is still primarily a question of what Pravda has called ''the constructive strength of unity,'' with a plan of 10 or 15 years geared to more efficient use of the community's available resources, first to relieve bloc countries of further ''dependence'' on the West and only then as a way forward to the ultimate goal.
Recently, Soviet economist Oleg Bogomolov urged reform along Hungarian lines. But he, too, visualizes Comecon's integration primarily as a means of making the communist world ''economically and technically independent of the capitalist market.'' In short, he sees a more effective but primarily self-sufficient community as a safeguard against another Polish debacle.
Writing recently in Nepsabadzag, the head of the foreign affairs department of the Hungarian party committee, Matyas Szuros, insisted that unity and diversity are not mutually exclusive, but are indispensable to all the Comecon countries' solution of their domestic and international economic problems.
Whether Mr. Andropov goes along with all this only the much-heralded Comecon summit - when it comes - will tell.