The Comeback Kids

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By George Weigel

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In Poland today, ex-communists and their ex-communist allies in an ex-communist rural party enjoy a majority of seats in parliament, to which they were duly elected by a population that had been one of the most intransigently anti-communist in the Warsaw Pact. In Hungary, the Socialist (i.e., ex-Communist) Party won full parliamentary power. In Slovakia, ex-communists called “Social Democrats” replaced ex-communists called “Nationalists.”

Why?

Several reasons suggest themselves. The reformers and anti-communist dissidents who came to power in 1989 and 1990 formed the governments that had to take the hardest economic decisions, which usually resulted in unemployment, inflation, and a decline in living standards. And the voters, perhaps unwisely but not altogether surprisingly, paid the dissidents-turned-politicians back in the time-honored democratic way: they threw the rascals out.

Then there was the fact that the ex-communist parties inherited the only existing political organizations in the region. These organizations had considerable funds, which made a difference when it came to campaigning.

The ex-communists also enjoyed a degree of internal cohesion that was singularly lacking in the parties formed by ex-dissidents. Indeed, it was the incredible fissiparousness of the ex-dissident parties (hardly a month seemed to pass without another fracture, and the formation of another splinter-party), combined with voting laws that were not always wisely drafted, that led to situations like that faced by Hanna Suchocka, the Polish prime minister whose fall in June 1993 paved the way for the communists’ return. Twenty-nine parties, including a Beer Drinkers’ Party that later split into two factions, were represented in the Sejm during Suchocka’s premiership, and her governing coalition of seven parties was riven with factional feuds, splinterings, and personal rivalries that made its demise—and the ascent of the far more organized and far better disciplined ex-communist parties—almost inevitable.

There were also moral reasons for the return of the ex-communists to power in central and eastern Europe. Equality and security under communism meant the equality of shared poverty and the security of shared serfdom. But equality it was, and security it was, at least in a manner of speaking. The transition to a society in which equality means equality before the law but not equality of economic results has not come easily, and the attendant insecurities have hit many people hard. We see fear of freedom all around us, in the developed democracies of the West. Why should we be surprised when we see it in the new democracies of east central Europe?

The Czech Republic has been the exception to this pattern of ex-communist recrudescence, and it is interesting to speculate why. The Czech economy, as noted, is booming along, with low inflation and low unemployment; but that was not an accident, a piece of good luck that befell the Czechs rather than the Poles or the Hungarians. Rather, it was the result of deliberate policies of rapid privatization. The fact that the Czech Republic also adopted legal measures to deter the return to public office of ex-communist functionaries and their allies in the populace has also undoubtedly played a role here. Those measures—the so-called lustration laws—were hardly perfect, and in the course of the process, innocent people were unnecessarily implicated in the evils of the past. But the very effort to come to grips, legally, with the question of responsibility for persecution and depredation during the communist period had something of a cleansing effect on the political psychology of the Czech Republic. And it raises interesting questions about the alternative strategy of “drawing a bright line” between past and present adopted by governments such as the first post-communist regime led by Tadeusz Mazowiecki in Poland.

The bad guys’ comeback also challenges some of the common wisdom adopted by both Western analysts and some east central European ex-dissidents in the wake of the Revolution of 1989: namely, that the greatest threat to democracy consolidation in these countries would come from the right, in a revival of ethnic-based nationalism and the kind of nationalist parties that were prominent in the region in the 1930s. As the aforementioned Anne Applebaum notes in Foreign Affairs, this fear led American diplomats in the region to go “out of their way to encourage politicians whom they perceived as anti-nationalist and to discourage ‘decommunization’ programs, which were often favored by politicians whom they perceived as nationalist.” This lobbying had an impact: “right-wing and conservative politicians in Central Europe failed to receive the official approval, invitations, and fellowships given to their left and center-left counterparts.” Marginalized and underappreciated, sometimes accused of crypto-fascism by their former allies, these right and center-right forces then contributed their bit (and it was considerable) to the crack-up of the ex-dissident coalitions that opened the electoral path for the ex-communists’ return.

This anti-nationalist hysteria (which was, in some respects, the stalking horse for a general anti-democratic-conservative stance) vastly overstated the problem, Applebaum argues. Indeed, the exception of Yugoslavia (an artificial entity with a singular history) proves the rule: there has been no generalized outbreak of anti-democratic sentiment on the nationalist right. Take, for example, Applebaum’s description of the case of Polish president Lech 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 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.

 

Applebaum’s brisk conclusion follows logically enough: “Across the region, former communists—together with businessmen, bankers, generals, and journalists linked to the former communist parties—pose a far greater challenge [than the nationalist right] to healthy democracy and capitalism.”

The issue is not whether democracy and the free economy are being systematically undermined, even threatened, by the communist Comeback Kids. My own experience in Poland this past year, and extensive conversations with men and women from many parts of the region, persuade me that a return to the totalitarian past is simply not in the cards; nor do I see the likelihood of a return to a milder, but nonetheless odious, authoritarianism. The issue now posed is: What kind of democracy? What kind of capitalism?

Applebaum suggests, and I’m inclined to agree, that it is not the “specter of the 1930s” that haunts central and eastern Europe, but the old Italian model in which corrupt regimes (in the east central European case, composed of ex-communists) run things in league with a mafia-like business class (itself composed, in east central European considerable part of ex-communists). Thus the real danger in the region now is the translation of ex-communist political power into newly capitalist economic power, and then back into political power. The ex-communist parties are not, have not been, and do not seem likely to become normal political parties like those in the West. They ought not to be regarded as such.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.