The departure of Janos Kadar as Hungary's Communist Party leader came during unprecedented open criticism of his policies and offered proof of the Soviet bloc's new penchant for orderly transfers of power.
Kadar, who ran the party for 32 years, stepped down as general secretary on Sunday at the end of a three-day conference at which delegates openly called for new faces and new policies. He turns 76 on Thursday.They got their new party leader in Premier Karoly Grosz, a 57-year-old pragmatist who appears open to political reform. Kadar was named to the largely ceremonial post of party president, a position created for him.
According to Politburo member Janos Berecz, Kadar asked conference delegates who made sweeping changes in the party elite not to nominate him as party leader, citing age and "the need for renewal."
Grosz, in turn, nominated Kadar for his new ceremonial post.
The procedure suggested the change in power may have been agreed upon in advance in an attempt to unite party ranks increasingly split in recent months over the pace and
shape of reform.
In Czechoslovakia in December, outgoing party boss Gustav Husak also reportedly nominated his successor, Milos Jakes. Jakes has kept Husak in the Politburo and in the ceremonial state presidency.
Both transfers occurred without the outward tumult that surrounded Husak's promotion in 1969 to replace Alexander Dubcek after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Kadar's rise to power after the Soviets crushed the Hungarian revolt of 1956.
It is not clear how much of a role the Soviets played in either of the recent transitions. Kremlin leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev has pledged not to interfere in the affairs of his Eastern European allies, but his reforms undoubtedly increased pressure on both Kadar and Husak.
Kadar's departure leaves Todor Zhivkov of Bulgaria, in power since 1954, as the only Soviet bloc leader from the 1950s still in office.
Zhivkov and East Germany's Erich Honecker, who so far has refused to follow Gorbachev's political and economic reforms, both are 75 and likely will come under increased pressure to step down.
They may be more willing to do so now that Kadar and Husak have shown that it is possible to relinquish the top party post while still remaining on the political scene, albeit with diminished power.
But it is unlikely that either will face such public criticism as Kadar, who in the past two decades tolerated a degree of open discussion rare in the Soviet bloc until Gorbachev took over the Kremlin in March 1985.