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The Fall and Rise of the Communists: Guess Who's Running Central Europe?

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In the fall of 1993 and spring of 1994, Western politicians and journalists were caught off guard by a series of political changes in Central Europe. In Poland, parties led by former communists and their rural allies won a majority of parliamentary seats; in Hungary, the former Communist Party won absolute parliamentary power; in Slovakia, former communists calling themselves Social Democrats replaced former communists calling themselves Nationalists.

If the changes caused surprise in the West, they were greeted with shock by former dissidents and anticommunist intellectuals in Central Europe. In both West and East, observers had assumed that the former communist parties were thoroughly demoralized and defeated and would remain nothing more than a marginal political force. Most believed that the potential for trouble in Central Europe lay elsewhere - in the resurgence of 1930s-style nationalist parties. After all, several Central European nations did have authoritarian or fascist governments before the Second World War, and it was feared that they might well bring such people to power again.

Western, particularly American, diplomats in Central Europe went out of their way to encourage politicians whom they perceived as antinationalist and to discourage "decommunization" programs, which were often favored by politicians whom they perceived as nationalist. This was the case across the former Soviet bloc, even though decommunization projects, sometimes called "lustration," usually did little more than forbid former high-ranking communist party officials from holding office under the new regime. While diplomatic efforts did not determine the political developments in Central Europe - they did not stop the Czechs or Germans from passing laws on lustration - they did have an impact. Right-wing and conservative politicians in Central Europe failed to receive the official approval, invitations, and fellowships given their left and center-left counterparts.

It is now clear that the intense Western fear of nationalism in Central Europe misidentified the problem and that the attempt to thwart the progress of so-called nationalist parties was a mistake. Nowhere in the region has there been a resurgence of 1930s-style nationalism. (Although tragic and shocking, the former Yugoslavia has proved the exception, not the norm. And the causes of the war there are unique, deriving from the region's special history, both before and after the Second World War.) In Central Europe the greatest danger to democracy and stability does not - and never did - come from the new or the old nationalist right. The danger comes from the old left, from the remnants of the communist parties, which remain better organized and better funded than any new right-wing party could ever be. Former communist parties hold political and economic monopolies that will take years to loosen; until they do, politics will not become "normal" in any Western sense in Central Europe or elsewhere in the former Warsaw Pact.

WHAT NATIONALIST DANGER?

Why were both Western and Eastern observers so unprepared for the return of former communist parties to power? Much of the hysteria about nationalism in the last five years originated within the nations of Central Europe, where groups of intellectuals, particularly ex-dissidents, often perceived new right-wing or populist parties as threats. Accusations of nationalism and anti-Semitism were frequently used by one wing of the former Polish dissident movement to discredit the other. In 1990 Adam Michnik, one of Poland's leading ex-dissidents, wrote an article accusing then-candidate Lech Walesa of irresponsible nationalism and anti-Semitism on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. Michnik's article was widely received as the work of a neutral, independent intellectual and widely repeated; in fact, Michnik was a leading supporter of a political party that opposed Walesa.

While Walesa has proved in many ways a poor president, irresponsible nationalism is hardly an accurate description of his behavior. He has not used violence, threatened minorities, or made claims on former Polish territories in Ukraine and Lithuania. This is not to say that virulent strains of nationalist rhetoric do not occasionally appear in the Polish media or political arena. Nor is it to deny that President Walesa himself may be privately anti-Semitic or irresponsibly nationalist. But despite the lingering impression of Walesa as a potential dictator, no Polish leader espousing nationalist or racist rhetoric has had anything like the success of, say, Jean-Marie Le Pen in France. In the end, the feuding and rancor that these kinds of accusations created among former dissident allies served only to assist Poland's former Communist Party to victory in the 1993 parliamentary elections.

In other cases, there did seem at first to have been more substance to outside fears of a nationalist resurgence. Take, for example, the conservative Democratic Forum, which ruled Hungary until the former Communist Party came to power in elections last spring. It espouses a philosophy of "Hungarianness," based on its belief in prewar Christian and family values, similar to the "family values" movement in America or Western Europe. This platform was regarded, perhaps rightly, with some suspicion by Hungary's liberal former-dissident intellectuals, who feared that its form of nationalism would grow narrower and more dangerous. The Democratic Forum also has at least one prominent member, Istvan Csurka, who espouses openly anti-Semitic views. Csurka has claimed that Hungarian state television is controlled by communist Jews and has warned his countrymen against an "international Jewish conspiracy" bent on destroying them.

More important than Csurka's rhetoric, however, is the fact that it elicits so little popular support. Csurka has no following to speak of. Indeed, former Prime Minister Jozsef Antall's failure to denounce Csurka, a member of his party, is widely believed to have contributed to the Democratic Forum's electoral defeat. Despite the attention paid to Csurka, his existence is not a sign of a growing nationalist or anti-Semitic threat in Hungary. On the contrary, his failure to exert influence of any importance is a sign that Hungarians are wary of and resistant to such language, at least when it is employed for political purposes.

In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the situation is different. No dangerous nationalist rhetoric of any significance has been used in Czech politics. (At the same time, the Czech Republic is one of the two postcommunist states - East Germany is the other - to have carried out a program of lustration.) Evaluating the new Slovak state is more difficult because the nationalism that has developed there is not, as in the case of Poland and Hungary, led by prewar nationalists or the nationalist wing of a dissident movement trying to revive prewar nationalism for its own sake. In Slovakia, nationalist rhetoric has been used by former communists to keep themselves in power. The significance of the Slovak example cannot be underestimated. Slobodan Milosevic used his base in the Communist Party to follow a similar path to power in Serbia, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, or any other future nationalist, would almost certainly follow the same pattern in Russia.

True, Slovak nationalism did look like another prewar throwback in the early days of secessionist agitation, when portraits of Jozef Tiso, the leader of Slovakia's wartime Nazi puppet regime, appeared in shop windows, and a number of political leaders began directing rhetoric at Slovakia's 600,000-strong Hungarian minority. In 1990, recognizing that the Slovak economy, with its reliance on munitions factories, mining, and steel, would not respond to economic reform as readily as the Czech Republic - and recognizing that their own jobs would be the first to go - much of the Slovak communist nomenklatura, including factory chiefs as well as political bosses, threw their weight behind the Slovak independence movement. They won support from a populace heavily employed in the state sector and who believed in the possibility of "softer" economic reforms, "neither socialist nor capitalist," in the words of the Slovak nationalist leader, Vladimir Meciar, himself a Moscow-trained apparatchik.

Nonetheless, disillusion is setting in. In practice, "neither socialist nor capitalist" has meant that more of the fruits of privatization have fallen to members of the old regime. Instead of the open system of "voucher privatization" favored in the Czech Republic, the Slovak government has preferred sales that are privately negotiated, and therefore more easily corrupted. Economic reform is widely seen to have failed, and last March Prime Minister Meciar, the leader of the Slovak independence drive, was removed from office after a parliamentary vote of no confidence. Although recently reelected, he is now caught up in the sorts of political compromises that all democratic politicians are caught up in: the Hungarian minority, for example, has proved adept at using its parliamentary party to influence the government and to erase linguistic and educational discrimination that remains from before 1989.

THE MANY FACES OF COMMUNISM

These are case studies from the most "Western" nations of the former Soviet bloc. Yet the Polish, Hungarian, and even Slovak distaste for extremism is the norm all across Eastern Europe. Prime Minister Vytautas Landsbergis lost last year's elections in Lithuania partly because his enthusiasm for economic reform did not match the fierceness of his nationalist rhetoric; the same was true of Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk's failure to win reelection in July 1994. Despite fears to the contrary, neither Central Europe nor the Baltic or Slavic regions of the Soviet Union have yet melted in the much-heralded "caldron of nationalist hatred." Across the region, former communists - together with businessmen, bankers, generals, and journalists linked to the former communist parties - pose a far greater challenge to healthy democracy and capitalism.

At first glance, this may not seem obvious. There is no ideological threat to democracy in Central Europe; the ideals of Marxism are dead, and the return of totalitarianism is not a threat. Nor is there any point in asking whether the states of Central Europe will be capitalist states, because they nearly are. The question now is what kind of capitalism and democracy Central Europe will have, a problem no one imagined before 1989. But capitalism and democracy do come in different forms. It is not the specter of the 1930s that haunts Central Europe, but the old Italian model - corrupt regimes led by former communist parties that rely on a semi-mafia business class composed mostly of former communists.

The return of former communist parties to power reflects the rise of the new economic elite. Links between ex-nomenklatura capitalists and ex-communist politicians remain intact, creating a ruling class that holds power in several spheres, with little room for real competition in political or economic debates. A Polish economist who traced the careers of several hundred top nomenklatura from 1988 to 1993 found that over half of them turned up as top executives in the private sector. Those numbers were even higher in Hungary and higher still in Russia. With better connections, more money, and more property to start with, former communists have indisputably been the largest financial beneficiaries of the last four years of economic reforms. Not surprisingly, former communist parties are much better funded and organized than the often weak, divided post-dissident parties. In coming years these links between politicians and businesses will strengthen as economies recover and the ex-nomenklatura grow wealthier.

Although the return of communists to power is often portrayed as neutral - ex-communists often describe themselves as "experts" - this is not quite the case. Many have come to power using socialist populist rhetoric more familiar to voters than nationalist populist appeals. Party leaders who believe the rhetoric can inflict great damage on the economy. Slovakia and Ukraine provide excellent examples of how the concerted efforts of former communist political classes can hold back entire economies.

Even when former communists have a genuine interest in economic reform, they can still have a stultifying effect on politics. In Hungary, power is now held almost exclusively by a small elite of former communists and center-left ex-dissidents - not necessarily an evil elite, but a claustrophobic one nevertheless. In Poland, there is evidence of ruling parties demanding Italian-style kickbacks from their friends in the business sector. The rule of small, secretive elites has a range of negative economic effects. If not broken up by politicians, former secret police networks convert easily into semi-corrupt business structures; ex-communist bankers lend readily to ex-communist factory owners, with little regard for commercial considerations. At their worst, as in Serbia or Romania, former communist parties can use their excellent organizational bases to suppress the growth of other parties. The communist parties of Central Europe will remain special for many years to come because of their past monopoly on power, which has been translated into economic power and now back into political power. They are not "normal" political parties in any Western sense.

MAKING THE RIGHT FRIENDS

For that reason, it is not the center-left that needs Western diplomatic and intellectual encouragement in Central Europe, but the center-right. The development of a healthy Western conservative element within the political system is essential to modern democracy. Ideological considerations aside, a strong center-right or conservative political alternative, which is notably absent in Poland, Slovakia, and Ukraine, would provide political competition for the former communist elite and inject an element of competition into the economic system. A strong center-right prime minister, Vaclav Klaus, has enabled the Czech Republic to privatize further and faster than any other country in the region.

Western diplomats should also be interested in the Central European right and in healthy nationalist movements elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Not all "nationalist" or even "patriotic" emotion is necessarily a symptom of antidemocratic tendencies. Nor is it all extraneous to the progress of reform. The quality of the civil servants, diplomats, and soldiers in Central Europe, for example, will depend largely on whether Central European politicians manage to revive national pride, given that salaries in the public sector will remain low. One of the few emotions that can keep a good Slovak scientist in Slovakia, or a talented Ukrainian entrepreneur in Ukraine, is patriotism.

Across the former communist bloc, the growth of nationalist movements has led to a revival of interest in history and national culture. While this change can lead, as in the former Yugoslavia, to territorial disputes and vicious intolerance, it can also lead national elites into constructive discussions of once-taboo issues. The best example is anti-Semitism in Poland. Since the late 1980s, public debate about the history of the Polish Jews has grown beyond measure. The tone of the discussion may not always appeal to outsiders, and the debate itself can be mistaken for anti-Semitism, but the fact that it is happening means that a younger generation will understand the issues better than their elders. Repressing the past is always more harmful than open debate, however acrimonious. Yugoslavia would have been far better off with an honest discussion of the past during the postwar era; open debate about historical and national differences would help relations between Russia and Ukraine. Yet Westerners often mistake the outpouring of pent-up feelings of patriotism - natural in what were effectively occupied countries - for dangerous militancy.

Democracy itself may in the end depend upon the patriotic spirit in another way. Tocqueville once defined rational patriotism as the moment "a man understands the influence that his country's well-being has on his own." When the nation-states of Central Europe were political subordinates of Moscow, this sense of connection to and interest in the fate of the nation-state was not possible. A Pole or a Ukrainian could not feel loyalty to a state that was not his own. Now rational patriotism can create the public spirit that, together with respect for the rule of law, is as important to developed democracy as peaceful borders or parliamentary elections. Those in Central Europe who attempt to revive such emotions after a long spell of suppression are to be commended, not condemned. They deserve Western support, not scorn.

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