One of the founding members of Romania's Communist Party, in an unprecedented gesture, today publicly opposed the reelection of President Nicolae Ceausescu as the party's leader.
Constantin Privulescu, 84, a member of the party's leadership from 1954 to 1960, chose the closing stages of the 12th Communist Party Congress to launch a strong personal attack on the 61-year-old Ceausescu. He accused the president of being undemocratic and putting personal interests before those of his country.
Privulescu was promptly ejected from the congress.
Although Ceausescu was later re-elected to the key post of party secretary general for a fourth term, the outburst was clearly a serious embarrassment. It came in front of nearly 3,000 delegates, journalists and representatives of foreign Communist parties at the five-day meeting that saw Ceausescu's personality cult lifted to new heights.
Traditionally, Romanian party congresses are totally stage-managed affairs, even by East European standards. The delegates are screened for their personal loyalty to the president, the list of speakers is closely controlled and security is strict.
Speakers are cheered ecstatically when they mention Ceausescu, who has led Romania since 1965.
In contrast, according to Western news agency reports reaching Yugoslavia, a stunned hush descended on the giant congress hall when Pirvulescu was finally given the floor after saying that he had earlier been refused permission to speak.
Pirvulescu described the congress as nothing but a gathering of people agitating for Ceausescu's reelection and accused other delegates of glossing over the country's real problems.
Western observers said that although no one applauded Pirvulescu, he voiced the frustrations of many of the old guard. They are dissatisfied both because they have been eased out of power and because of what they see as the betrayal of Marxist ideals in favor of the adulation now accorded to Ceausescu personally.
Also discontented are many technical and economic experts who believe that Ceausescu's policy of forced industrialization has distorted the economy, despite statistics showing rapid economy. Ordinary Romanians express annoyance at the constant shortages of vegetables and consumer goods and difficulties in traveling abroad.
Despite Romania's pursuit of a foreign policy independent of Moscow, internally the society is characterized by rigid controls and lower living standards than elsewhere in the Soviet bloc.
Following Pirvulescu's ejection from the hall, Ceausescu accused him of having pro-Soviet sympathies, that is, of "longing for the time when the fate of the party and people was not decided here, but elsewhere."
While it is true that Pirvulescu spent six years in Moscow before and during World War II, he was only elected to the Romanian Politburo after the purging of a pro-Soviet faction in 1952.
Pirvulescu was dropped from the Politburo in 1960, after being accused of joining a plot against the former party leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-dej, but was rehabilitated in 1965 by Ceausescu himself. He filled several minor party posts until his retirement due to age in 1969.
Since then, like other senior party figures, he has made ritual appearances at party congresses -- becoming, as one old Communist put it, "one of the decorations on Ceausescu's Christmas tree."
An experienced Western analyst of Romanian affairs described Privulescu an "an old Communist idealist who couldn't care less what happens to him because he knows his next appointment is with the grave."
For the time being, there does not seem to be a serious threat to Ceausescu's personal position. A skillful politician, he has packed the policy-making Central Committee with his supporters -- including a dozen members of his own family.
As for the extent to which Ceausescu's repressive policies are holding up economic development, three decades of extreme centralization do appear to have resulted in a general unwillingness to show initiative. There is widespread apathy and low labor productivity in factories.
According to a recent joke in Bucharest, "The authorities make the appearance of paying us and we make the appearance of working."
Enthusiasm for Ceausescu's independent foreign policy, which reached a peak in 1968 when he publicly condemned the Soviet-led invasion of Czechslovakia, has waned over the last few years as Romanians have realized that it has bought them few tangible benefits at home. Many now envy the neighboring Hungarians, who enjoy significantly higher living standards and personal freedoms while their government maintains loyalty to the Kremlin.