Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this weekend's Hungarian Party conference wasn't that longtime leader Janos Kadar stepped down, or that Prime Minister Karoly Grosz replaced him. It was Imre Pozsgay's promotion to the Politburo.
Mr. Pozsgay makes other communist reformers, including Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, look conservative.
``The [Communist] Party's power must be controlled,'' he told the Monitor in a wide-ranging two-hour interview last week. ``We must open up for dialogue and give an outlet for citizen's emotions.''
This philosophy leads Pozsgay to propose reforms unheard of elsewhere in the Soviet bloc. He wants to publish minutes of Central Committee debates, hold open elections to party posts, and limit terms in office of party leaders. Under Pozsgay's reforms, no one could dominate Hungary for three decades like Janos Kadar.
``It's folkloric,'' he said of Mr. Kadar's hanging onto power. ``People took him for a scapegoat.''
Outside the party, Pozsgay-style glasnost (openness) means sharing power with the opposition. Imagine Mr. Gorbachev participating in a meeting of the Press Club Glasnost in Moscow. Pozsgay shocked old-guard communists last fall by attending the inauguration of an opposition group called the Democratic Forum.
In the Monitor interview, he gave his blessing to new independent groups sprouting in Budapest. He said he would press for a law of free assembly, which would permit independent trade unions and end press censorship. He also called for a constitutional court which would guarantee human rights and a powerful, independent Parliament.
These proposals excite Hungary's intellectuals, inside and outside of the party. To them, Pozsgay is a symbol of hope unlike any other communist leader in Eastern Europe.
``Pozsgay embodies reform,'' says Zoltan Biro, ejected from the party earlier this year for his own radical ideas. ``He represents our views, and that's why his personal fate is so important.''
Pozsgay's popularity makes him many enemies. Unlike other leading communists, he does not come from a working-class background. He made his name as a liberal-minded minister of culture, not by excelling in the party bureaucracy. In private, one top-ranking official derides him as ``strong in theories.''
``He can talk to intellectuals, but can he talk to the masses?'' asked the official. ``Pozsgay is not realistic.''
The implication is explosive: Hard-liners fear Pozsgay's leadership could let latent divisions within Hungarian society surface. Some Western diplomats even compare Pozsgay to doomed Czechoslovak communist reformer Alexander Dubcek, unleashing reforms which would tumble out of control and scare the Soviets.
``If Pozsgay became general secretary, it would be a disaster,'' one Western diplomat said. ``He's scares all sorts of people.''
When confronted with such criticisms, Pozsgay refuses to budge. He sees a backer in Gorbachev, and insists on taking advantage of the favorable reform breezes coming from Moscow.
``We should have taken these steps 20 years ago, but unfortunately we couldn't because there was no Gorbachev,'' he says. ``For the first time, Hungary can go ahead and reform, because the most important socialist states are reforming.''
The choice is simple, Pozsgay says. Either Hungary liberalizes its political system or the combination of anger about falling living standards and expectations over Gorbachev's reform will combine into ``a swelling of protest.''
``The conservatives say that we must not move too fast in order to maintain stability,'' he says. ``I say our greatest enemy is the unchanged situation.''
The writer covers Eastern Europe from his base in Paris and recently returned from a trip to Hungary.