Mongolia's ruling Communist Party chose a new set of reformist leaders today and agreed to give up its monopoly on power.
A former trade union president and head of party ideology who had faced official criticism in the early 1980s, Gombojavyn Ochirbat, 61, was named party chief.
"This is the beginning of real change in Mongolia," Foreign Ministry spokesman Tepbishiin Chimeddorj told journalists in Ulan Bator, the capital.
Ochirbat spent the past two years in Prague, Czechoslovakia, working as the Mongolian party's representative on the theoretical journal World Marxist Review. He returned to Mongolia a few days ago to attend the Central Committee meeting.
Ochirbat is a "kind, theoretical man" who is "reformist and forward looking," according to an anonymous Mongolian official quoted by Reuters news agency.
The Central Committee meeting, attended by about 170 full or alternate members, also elected an entirely new Politburo, consisting of Ochirbat and four other reformist leaders who are all less than 50 years old.
In recent months, as Mongolian dissidents staged a series of public rallies and organized three new opposition political parties, the Foreign Ministry and the state-run media have usually taken either neutral or vaguely sympathetic stances toward the opposition.
Outgoing General Secretary Jambyn Batmonh, who retains, at least for now, his position as Mongolia's president, has also taken a conciliatory stance.
Puntzagiin Ulanku, a leader of the new National Progressive Party, which was formed Tuesday on a platform of immediate transformation of Mongolia's centralized economy to a market system, praised Batmonh earlier this week for his restraint.
Ulanku credited Batmonh with refusing to allow the use of troops to clear hunger-striking activists and their supporters from central Ulan Bator's Sukhe Bator Square during a protest staged last week.
Mongolia's Parliament, at a special session starting March 21, will decide whether Batmonh and Premier Dumaagiyn Sodnom should remain in office.
The ruling Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party has also agreed to hold multi-party legislative elections this year.
Opposition and government leaders have agreed to establish a joint commission to draft a new constitution. The present constitution grants a monopoly on power to the Communists, who have ruled since 1921.