Hungary's Man of the People - and the Party

WHEN rumors spread last week that Rezso Nyers would be named Hungary's No. 1 leader, a few Hungarian journalists staked out the VIP exit at Vienna Airport where Mr. Nyers was switching planes. But they never saw him. ``He's such a modest man,'' one journalist recalls. ``He just passed through the ordinary passport queue.''

Modesty, sincerity, geniality - these are the qualities that made Nyers a popular choice for Communist Party president. His unassuming manner has helped avoid making enemies. And, at 66, Nyers is seen to lack long-term personal ambitions.

``I don't want to come back to power,'' he told the Monitor in 1987. ``I've reached an age where it's no longer a necessity.''

But Nyers enjoys such a unique stature that he could not avoid calls to take over. At 17, he joined the Social Democratic Party, which was later absorbed by the Communists. During the 1956 Hungarian revolt, he was a member of the Central Committee. From 1960-62, he was finance minister. In 1968, he fathered the market-oriented economic changes which made Hungary a communist pathsetter.

Soviet pressure put a stop to those reforms in the early 1970s. Former party leader Janos Kadar expelled Nyers from the Politburo in 1975. Mr. Kadar himself was ousted in May 1988, and Nyers was brought back into the Politburo and given charge of the economy. He gave the go-ahead this year for radical changes that freed private enterprise and allowed foreign investors 100-percent control of Hungarian companies. He also pressed for a multiparty democracy.

These moves make him popular among the noncommunist opposition. A public opinion poll last week showed 51 percent of opposition party members trusted him. Only 8 percent trusted party General Secretary Karoly Grosz.

So, is Nyers really a communist? Or a closet social democrat? ``I am a communist, but certainly not in the Stalinist sense,'' he says. ``Let's just say my communism is deeply rooted in social-democratic theory.''

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