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Reform fatigue.

In the heady days of the Soviet Union's collapse, the states of Eastern Europe looked eagerly toward independence, multi-party democracy, and a swift transition to free market economies. Five years later, they have woken from the dream to hard reality. The birth pangs of change are still going on.

And, as a result, early post-communist governments are being sidelined or forced to slow reforms. Unhappy voters are marking their ballots for ex-communist parties now calling themselves "Socialists" or "the Democratic Left." The back-pedalling began last year in Lithuania. The country's Soviet-era leader, Algirdas Brazauskas, defeated the republic's champion of independence, Vytautas Landsbergis, in a presidential election. Last autumn, voters in Poland did a U-turn, electing the Democratic Alliance and its tame coalition partner the Peasants' Part both filled with familiar faces from communist days. The once-mighty Solidarity was solid no more. In politics at least, it has splintered into an array of squabbling minor parties.

More of the same was to follow in 1994. In May, Hungary's Socialists defeated the Democratic Forum which had led the country at independence. With an outright majority in the 386-seat assembly, it will govern Hungary along with the second-place Alliance of Free Democrats. Hungarians feel more comfortable with their communists than most other East Europeans. Years before the collapse of Soviet domination, the Hungarian regime was practising what was known as "goulash communism" - a stew of socialism spiced with free enterprise. Hungary has been on the slow road to market reform since 1968.

Ukraine's election rules are so complex that parliamentary elections last April gave seats to scores of independents and left no party with an absolute majority. However the largest bloc of seats is held by the revived Communist Party and its allies in the Agrarian and Socialist parties, with a total of 124 of the 450 seats. In Slovakia, former communists of the Party of the Democratic Left are governing in an odd alliance with the Christian Democrats. In Bulgaria, the Democratic Left seems poised to return to power.

Some states have never left the communist camp. Romania, though it's officially a multiparty presidential republic, is still ruled by veteran communist leader Ion Ilescu. In Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia, former communists still rule the roost. Only the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, and Albania have governments in which former communists do not hold power or significantly share in ruling.

Russia itself, from which communist ideology spread to Eastern Europe, has gone through the same process, though in bloodier fashion. In December 1993, rebellious communist die-hards seized the parliament. They had to be flushed out of their building by Red Army soldiers loyal to President Boris Yeltsin. Since then, Mr. Yeltsin, a free market reformer, has won approval of a new constitution giving him sweeping powers to carry out his policies. To counter this, however, parliamentary elections gave arch-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party nearly 25% of the seats in the lower house and the communists over 13%. President Yeltsin's favoured Russia's Choice party only managed to win about 15% of seats; other pro-reform members split into several parties instead of forming a united front.

The joy of five years ago has gone and there's an apparent retreat toward the drab, grey world Eastern Europe so longed to shake off. Democracy and a free market economy seem more fragile goals now, and we need to look for reasons.

To begin with, the states of Eastern Europe have little or no experience with governing through multi-party parliaments in which the ruling party has a limited term in office and is always challenged by an opposition. Instead, they have been pawns of empires for centuries, often changing hands during wars, but always under the control of some monarch or other. Even between this century's two world wars, they had few tastes of democracy. Hungary, for example, turned to fascism in the 1930s, suppressing opposition parties, persecuting Jews, and building closer ties to Nazi Germany. Poland had a parliament for a time in the 1920s but soon became a dictatorship under Marshal Jozef Pilsudski. Democracy in Eastern Europe has shallow roots.

Little wonder, then, that the first democratic governments in these countries were green amateurs sure to trip over their own feet. Lithuania and Hungary are examples. The first had been led by a musicologist, the second by an historian. The fumbles of such novices quickly lost them popular support. In contrast, ex-communists had governed for decades. They were ready to adapt to new circumstances, and promised stability and relief for those hardest hit by market reforms. It was a case of old pros against rookies.

A third reason for the turning back to former communists is given by Adrian Karainycky, executive director of Freedom House. He blames the failure of Western aid programs to put enough money into democratic education of the young.

Beyond and above all these factors is the crushing effect of "shock therapy" in reforming the marketplace. As state subsidies disappear and industries are privatized, unemployment jumps. As prices are freed from state control, inflation soars. During the painful transition to an efficient, competitive system, productivity takes a big drop. Only the sharp, young entrepreneurs or the criminal gangs flourish in this kind of economic chaos. The voters in Eastern Europe expected freedom would soon pour money into their pockets and affordable goods into their shops. They were not prepared for the reality and have been showing their anger at the ballot box.

Opinions differ on what we can expect from the rise of the old guard in Russia and Eastern Europe. Some are comparing Russia's plight today with that of the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1920s. Germans then saw their money become worthless under hyperinflation. Their borders shrank after defeat in World War I and they had to watch fellow Germans become minorities in other countries as the map of Europe was redrawn.

Could ultra-nationalist Zhirinovsky become another AdolfHitler? Perhaps, but there are differences between Germany then and Russia now. The Weimar Republic had weak leadership; Mr. Yeltsin is not one to be pushed around and so far has the support of the military. As well, the West sympathizes with Yeltsin while it squeezed the Weimar Republic dry with its demands for money to pay for war damage.

As for Russia's former satellites in Eastern Europe, the trend toward governments run by ex-communists doesn't have to mean the end of democracy or market reforms. In Poland, Bronislaw Geremek, a leading member of the Democratic Union (Solidarity), says, "Old-style communism ... is gone, it cannot be rebuilt." And again, "One should not overdramatize the success of former communists in the election. They seem firmly committed to democracy and the reform process." But Mr. Geremek also warns that "a decent welfare policy" will have to go along with economic reforms to prevent collapse, and a setback for democracy.

Hungary's renamed Socialists may have won the May 1994 election, but in June they agreed to give the liberal Free Democrats almost equal power, with a veto over government policy and senior cabinet posts. Together, the two aim to push ahead with economic reform and seek tighter ties with the rest of Europe. That doesn't sound like the end of democracy or a return to communist ways in the marketplace.

Conditions vary in the other republics of Eastern Europe. Ukraine, in spite of ample resources and a skilled labour force, is near the bottom of the heap because of corruption and mismanagement. The Czech Republic, by getting unemployment down to a mere 3.5% and offering every adult a share in former state industries, has done best at keeping its former communists in check. All these East bloc countries, have some form of parliamentary opposition, weak and divided though it may be. Some say that far-right nationalist parties such as Mr. Zhirinovsky's may be a bigger threat to getting on with the job than reform-minded communists.


1. In what ways could extreme nationalist parties disrupt progress toward democracy and economic reform? Look for actual examples in Central or Eastern Europe, list them on the chalkboard and in discussion go on to outline the possible threats they offer.

2. Another cause of voter support for former communists may be resentment against the conditions for loans set by foreign" institutions such as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. Find out the conditions usually set by these organizations for loans to developing countries and discuss reasons they may be resented.
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Title Annotation:Eastern Europe - Political Reform
Author:White, Charles A.
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Date:Sep 1, 1994
Previous Article:Life in Absurdistan.
Next Article:Ghosts in the closet.

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