Some East European Communist Leaders Are Clinging to Power in Their Countries

THREE years after the fall of the Berlin Wall it is becoming clear that in some parts of Eastern Europe the new world order is being run by the same old leaders: ex-communists still fond of authoritarian ways.

Romania, where veteran bureaucrat Ion Iliescu won reelection as president on Sunday, is perhaps the region's preeminent laggard in democracy. Others include Serbia, Croatia, the former Soviet republic of Belarus, and the Slovakia half of the soon-to-split Czech and Slovak Republic.

The iron repression of the bad old days doesn't necessarily still rule these places. What does distinguish them is continued leadership by partly reconstructed party members who are learning to manipulate new electoral processes and play on fear of capitalistic chaos to win votes.

"There is going to be this situation where many former communist regimes will be voted into office," says George Zarycky, central European specialist at the human rights organization Freedom House.

Ex-communist parties still have extensive resources at their disposal, points out Mr. Zarycky, even after the sudden loss of power and prestige most experienced at the turn of the decade. Apparatchiks indispensable to the continued function of government still fill posts throughout the region, even in internal security forces.

Fully a quarter of Eastern Europe's adult population has belonged to a communist party at sometime or another since the end of World War II, according to one estimate. Remaining true believers thus form a substantial political power base.

Romania is a model for this condition. Less Western than Hungary, lacking Poland's history of anti-communist infrastructure, Romania is now a semi-authoritarian country wearing democratic clothes. Tainted politicians

At first, it didn't appear that things would work out that way.

In a country where almost every politician seemed tainted one way or another, Ion Iliescu was hailed as a reformer before the first post-Ceausescu election, in May 1990. The former senior Communist Party boss won 85 percent of the vote. But Iliescu lost much favor shortly thereafter when he imported 20,000 coal miners into the cities to crush opposition protests - a favored tactic of the old regime. Six people died and foreign leaders would have little to do with him.

In the run-up to last week's presidential poll, Iliescu stumped the countryside, courting peasants by accusing the opposition of "savage capitalism" and plotting to take away land. In a runoff election Sunday, he defeated Emil Constantinescu, candidate of a centrist coalition, by some 15 percent. The coalition has charged fraud, saying it was cheated of up to 10 percent of its vote.

Romania is far from the only "same old leaders" case. Serbia and Croatia, besides being bitter foes in the former Yugoslavia, both have leaders who continue such authoritarian practices as the harassment of opponents and journalists. Slovakia is still a part of Czechoslovakia and not yet a country on its own. But with the so-called "Velvet Divorce" from the Czechs looming, the ex-communist Slovak Prime Minister Vladmimir Meciar is moving to consolidate power in textbook, old-regime ways.

The media have been a particular target of Merciar. For one thing, he and his parliamentary allies have in effect reclaimed control over Slovak TV for the state.

They are now pressing a bill that would require journalists to submit transcripts of all interviews with government officials for state approval before publication.

But prior service as a communist official doesn't mean a new Eastern European leader will necessarily display authoritarian traits. Boris Yeltsin, it must be remembered, was once a high Kremlin official. Detours to democracy

The reverse is also true: Slovakia's Merciar was kicked out of the party following the 1968 Soviet invasion of his homeland. But, as political scientist Charles Gati of Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs: "Mainly because of the powerful, lasting impact of communist political culture, the road to democracy in east-central Europe is paved not only with bumps but with long detours that could lead to dead ends."

The level of repression, even in Romania, is much lower than in the past. In parts of the region, including Poland and Hungary, democracy seems to be taking hold.

But Dr. Gati argues that the danger lies not so much in what former party members are doing now, as in what they might do in a crisis "born of major domestic confrontations, intra-regional conflicts, or outbursts of large-scale violence in the former Soviet Union."

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