In the United States, a leadership shift comes every few years. In Eastern Europe, it usually comes once a generation - and the time for change is now looming. At recent important Communist Party Central Committee meetings in Hungary and Czechoslovakia the past few weeks, personnel changes reportedly were discussed. None came. But clearly this issue is gaining increased attention because of East Europe's aging leadership. Four of the six Communist Party chiefs in these countries are over 70 years of age and a fifth is 68.
For nations conditioned to seeing the same faces in power, the uncertainty about the future leadership is preoccupying. Communist leaders don't step down easily. It takes either a political crisis - like the 1980 labor unrest in Poland - or death to remove them. Debilitating struggles for power often follow.
What this transition will mean for the region remains unclear. Observers say it could bring to power more open-minded, pragmatic rulers. Or, the observers say, it could give rise to ambitious, less-talented, and less-principled leaders.
``Everybody's asking these days about [Janos] Kadar,'' Hungary's leader for the past 30 years, admitted one high-ranking party official recently in Budapest. ``The problem is we have no ready successor.''
Succession worries are accentuated by economic problems. Despite its vaunted economic reforms, Hungary is in an economic slump; its foreign debt and trade deficit are soaring. At the end of the Central Committee meeting in November, Western journalists were summoned to Budapest for a press conference. This produced speculation that important economic measures would be announced along with personnel changes.
Instead, no news came. The authorities apparently couldn't agree whether to proceed with more market-oriented reforms, at the cost of closing firms and causing unemployment, or to retrench and recentralize - at the cost of inefficiency. Without leaving a clear economic blueprint for the future, officials said, Mr. Kadar could not step down.
In Czechoslovakia, Soviet pressure more than domestic problems is pushing for change. Before a November central committee meeting in Prague, Czechoslovakia's stodgy, orthodox President Gustav Husak seemed worried by the reform rhetoric of youthful Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Since coming to power in 1968, after Soviet tanks crushed the the brief Prague spring rebellion, Mr. Husak has defended the status quo, keeping strong central control over the economy.
In Prague this summer, Czechoslovak officials predicted privately that Husak would stay in power. Mr. Gorbachev may want more economic support from Eastern Europe for his modernization plan, but officials say that, above all, he wants political stability. For Czechoslovakia, that means avoiding a power struggle.
``It would be too risky for Husak to step aside,'' said one Czechoslovak official who requested anonymity.
Though both Bulgaria and Romania have had economic difficulties under Todor Zhivkov and Nicolae Ceausescu, there are few signs either is to be removed from power. And East Germany, by East-bloc standards, is prospering economically, so there are no rumors of retirement for party chief Erich Honecker.
In any case, new leaders do not necessarily mean new policies. The Czechoslovak official who spoke in private said it would be easier for Husak to put through reforms that would stir up much political opposition within the party than it would be for a new leader to do the same.
The old leaders indeed have qualities that may be difficult to replace. Both Kadar and Husak chose to become communists before World War II - when only true believers joined the party. Both fought in the resistance against the Nazis. Both took high posts after the war, only to be accused of treason by hard-line Stalinists at the beginning of the 1950s. Tried and convicted, both spent years in prison before being rehabilitated.
In contrast, their replacements are likely to have joined the Communist Party after the war, usually less out of idealism than out of ambition. Membership meant privileges and power.
``The Husaks and Kadars have lived through so much, they have real beliefs, real character,'' says Jiri Dienstbier, a leading Czechoslovak dissident. ``The new generation have a no-risk apparatchik mentality - they just look for the open door on the train and jump on.''
Other East Europeans suggest this no-risk mentality may have its advantages. Less ideological, the new generation leaders may be more pragmatic, interested not in capitalist bashing, but in practical ways of improving national living standards.
Such a desire could lead to changes in attitudes both at home and abroad. Conscious of Western economic power, new leaders could look for increased trade with the West. And consious of the weaknesses of centralized economies, the new leaders could introduce more market forces.
The result would not be to roll back East European communism or dismember Moscow's military alliance, the Warsaw Pact. But East European diversity might be increased and its dependence on the Soviet Union reduced.
``My generation will be different,'' says a Czechoslovak official in his early 40s,``.... more open than the older [one].''