SOFIA, BULGARIA, JAN. 29 -- During the 33 years he has ruled this communist country, President Todor Zhivkov has loyally followed the lead of five successive political chiefs in Moscow, "both in sunny weather and in clouds," as he put it here yesterday.

Never before, however, has Zhivkov had a mentor like Mikhail Gorbachev. In the last two years, the Bulgarian leader has announced crackdowns on corruption, repeatedly reorganized the bureaucracy, launched a "radical restructuring" of the economy and even allowed token touches of glasnost into his tightly controlled media.

The results, however, have been far from comforting for a 76-year-old man who prospered with the Kremlin of Leonid Brezhnev. Zhivkov's new policies have been condemned both at home and abroad as confusing and incoherent. Muddled moves toward economic decentralization have caused production breakdowns in factories. As wave after wave of reorganization has alternately abolished and created state ministries and councils, thousands of bureaucrats have been paralyzed in midtransfer.

Worst of all, Zhivkov's initiatives have apparently been received with some reservations by the Soviet leadership they were meant to please. In October, the Bulgarian leader was unexpectedly called to Moscow for talks with Gorbachev that western diplomats interpreted as an exercise of Soviet supervision. In particular, the western analysts say, Gorbachev appeared uneasy not only with the chaotic character of Zhivkov's measures but also his fiery rhetoric about the need to scale back the role of the Communist Party.

This week, as Zhivkov has presided over a two-day party conference meant to clarify and repackage the new programs, Bulgaria stands as a striking example of the limits of the changes Gorbachev is promoting in Eastern Europe -- and the growing problems that even modest reform is encountering.

On the one hand, the Soviets' promptings of Zhivkov, and their subsequent reservations, have suggested that Gorbachev seeks real economic reorganization in the region, but insists that it be strictly and exclusively controlled by the ruling communist parties. Remarkably, Bulgaria's relative failure to promote more openness in public life or to renew its wizened leadership apparently has concerned Moscow less than Zhivkov's daring suggestions about scaling back party authority.

At the same time, the troubles Zhivkov has faced in introducing limited economic changes during the course of the last year, including the leadership's own confusion, have shown the staggering task Eastern Bloc reformers face.

"People who have grown up in our economy for 40 years cannot change overnight, and for that reason the reform encounters difficulties in a lot of cadres," party ideology chief Yordan Yotov told a press conference here. Added a western diplomat: "They didn't know where they were headed when they started the reform, and they don't know now. They have tended to make it up as they go along."

Careful to identify himself personally with new measures, Zhivkov, who recently bragged to a diplomat that he had "the heart of a 45-year-old," appears determined not to be propelled toward the retirement accepted last month by Czechoslovak leader Gustav Husak, another Brezhnev favorite.

Instead, the Bulgarian chief evidently plans to supervise the introduction of the limited market-based framework for the economy and decentralization of political administration favored by Gorbachev, in stages and with careful attention to the evolution of the reform in Moscow. "From a domestic and from an international point of view we {have} no alternative," he told the 3,000 delegates assembled here for the conference.

Overall, the Bulgarian reforms fall short of those in the Soviet Union. While Zhivkov has copied -- a little haphazardly -- key economic initiatives from the Soviets and from Hungary, glasnost, or greater openness and debate in the media, culture and public life, has appeared only in isolated instances.

As it does for other veteran East Europeans, glasnost poses special threats to Zhivkov. Discussion of the failures of the past would inevitably mean a discussion of the failures of his long rule. Moreover, openness in Bulgaria would invite recriminations by the country's 1-million-strong ethnic Turkish minority, which was subjected to a bloody assimilation campaign three years ago and now, in a classically Stalinist propaganda exercise, is officially alleged to be nonexistent.

Despite the continuing political hard line, sympathetic western diplomats say some real change has taken place in economic activity. In the past year most state companies have formed "self-management" bodies and held elections for managers, and many have been allowed to conduct their own business deals and foreign trade instead of going through a central bureaucracy.

A hesitant start at private enterprise has been made in taxi services and "cooperative" cafes, and the central monetary authority has been broken up into nine banks meant to operate roughly along western lines. Taxes have been reorganized to encourage profit-seeking and discourage overstaffing, and a new wage law is planned to allow greater differences in salaries and more incentives for workers.

At the same time, Zhivkov has placed a firm limit on economic change and distinguished Bulgaria from more reform-minded countries like Hungary and Poland by refusing to allow any liberalization of price controls or increases in basic retail prices.

Then, too, reforms carried out on paper have not always worked in practice. There have been reports of breakdowns in supplies, and western diplomats say some firms have even halted production in confusion over how to act. Last year, workers' voting on directors forced the replacement of only 2 percent of managers.

"People were unprepared," said Janko Djulgerov, manager of the Zepe electronic components plant in Sofia. "Some people work a little more independently now, while others go on getting consultations from above. We need a bit of time. It's like a child learning to walk."

Zhivkov's zeal for shaking up the government and party apparatus has caused further troubles. Ministries, industrial associations and state councils have been created, abolished and recreated in dizzying succession. Meanwhile, the entire provincial government structure has been rebuilt from scratch. Zhivkov admitted yesterday that "thousands" of resentful or uncertain officials had failed to take up the new posts assigned to them.

While the organizational confusion appeared partly responsible for Gorbachev's intervention last fall, Zhivkov's behavior suggests Soviet concern was focused on the role of the party. In outlining the reforms at a party plenum last July, Zhivkov accused the apparatus of "uncontrollable omnipotence" and said that in the future the party would have to act "only as a political party" and not as dictator to the government.

In his report to this week's conference, however, Zhivkov stressed repeatedly that party control would not be eased. "Regardless of whether production, day-to-day relations, the mass media or anything else is meant," said Zhivkov's report to the conference, "we should not and cannot retreat from the class and party approach, from the requirements of our Marxist-Leninist methodology."