Czechoslovak leader Gustav Husak appears to be the first East European victim of Gorbachevism. After finding it difficult to adapt to the Soviet leader's calls for reforms, the hard-line Mr. Husak stepped down yesterday as secretary-general of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Milos Jakes, a longtime apparatchik with a reputation for a bit more flexibility, was named as his successor.
Mr. Jakes is no dynamic Gorbachev-style reformer. Longtime party member, educated at the Moscow Communist Party College, he rose through the ranks by keeping a low profile, and showing loyalty to whomever was in charge. In 1968, he followed the liberal wave: afterward, he oversaw purges of an estimated 500,000 party members for their liberal views.
His main virtue now seems to be his acceptability to both conservative and liberal factions. At 65, he is on the young side, for the leadership of that nation. He probably won't rehabilitate those he purged, but he probably will try and bring the country a little more in step with the Soviet beat.
As such, he looks like an interim leader. The 74-year-old Husak's departure illustrates the looming problem of succession throughout Eastern Europe. Except for Poland's Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, the Soviet satellites are run by aging leaders, all of whom have been in power for more than a decade, and are associated more with the late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev than with Mikhail Gorbachev.
These transitions are delicate. On the one-hand, reform-minded Gorbachev wants East Europe to provide greater economic support for his plan to modernize the Soviet economy. For stagnating economies such as Czechoslovakia, this means dropping rigid central planning policies.
On the other hand, Gorbachev wants his allies to be stable. Unrest in the region could be used by Moscow conservatives to illustrate the dangers of change. For Czechoslovakia, still haunted by the 1968 Soviet invasion, this means avoiding sweeping change.
Stability and reform represent a difficult combination. So far, Gorbachev has not pushed aging leaders to retire, but his mere presence has emboldened reform-minded leaders, while upsetting the shaky foundations of the old order, Western analysts say.
The departure of Husak, who came to power on the heels of the Soviet tanks which crushed the 1968 Prague Springtime, seems to fit this scenario.
Ironically, Husak himself had a reputation as a liberal. A victim of the Stalinist purges in the 1950s, he spent a long period in prison.
Once in power, though, he instituted rigid conservative policies and widespread purges. Central planning was reinforced. The results were a deterioration of what once was an industrial powerhouse.
Emboldened by Soviet reforms, Prime Minister Lubomir Strougal and other pragmatists began to press at the end of 1986 for corresponding changes in Czechoslovakia. The orthodox hard-liners fought back, warning that anti-socialist forces must be combatted with vigor.
Husak attempted to steer a middle course through the bitter factional fighting. He announced a modest program to allow factories some autonomy - but then postponed putting it in place until the 1990s. He began prosecuting corrupt officials and loosening police surveillance of dissidents - but refused any thorough political reform or to consider reassessing 1968 events.
The dilemma was clear. How could Husak fully implement the very reforms he had been installed by the Soviets to eradicate? If he moved too far, too fast, he risked undermining his own legitimacy.
In recent months, the pressures of this unsustainable position have mounted.