Balkan Outcasts No Longer

Romania and Bulgaria have potential to become genuine democracies

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Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, East European states were expected to take their long-denied place in the civilized and democratic Western world.

Soviet domination had kept them underdeveloped, undemocratic, and generally un-European. The first free elections brought to power anticommunist political formations eager to reclaim their countries' "Europeness" and to embark on radical reform. But soon optimistic expectations gave way to gloom. Ethnic strife, civil apathy, political violence, and economic collapse were followed by a return to power of ex-communist parties (under new names) in the early 1990s.

Yet Hungarian, Polish, and Lithuanian socialists sometimes reluctantly seemed to adhere to the previous governments' commitment to democracy and a market economy. Poland and Hungary remained among the most zealous proponents of European Union and NATO membership and went to great lengths to ensure both organizations would expand soon.

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The perception emerged that it was not Eastern Europe in general, but rather its southeastern part - the Balkans - that was unstable and undemocratic. Wars in the former Yugoslavia, a violent overthrow of Romania's President Nicolae Ceausescu, and ethnic tensions preceding the ouster of Bulgaria's dictator Todor Zhivkov evoked images of Balkan savagery. Scholars and experts suddenly recalled the Balkans' history of political instability, warfare, ethnic strife, and social and economic underdevelopment.

The un-European Balkans

The Balkans became a region very different from the rest of Central Europe, and integration into the EU and NATO was questioned. The Balkans were again defined as un-European. Yet both optimists predicting a quick "reentry" of all Eastern Europe into Europe and pessimists denying that the Balkan countries have a capacity to become normal democracies are wrong.

Elections in Bulgaria and Romania in 1996 saw voters of both countries repudiate ex-communist governments. In Romania, the Democratic Convention (CDR), an alliance of right-of-center opposition groups, won the parliamentary elections with 30 percent of the vote, eight points more than the Party of Social Democracy (PDS), a party of barely reformed ex-communists that has governed since 1990.

Another reform-minded formation, the Social Democratic Union (USD), led by Petre Roman, garnered 13 percent of the vote. Further, the PDS's presidential candidate and incumbent Ion Iliescu, a former communist who scored overwhelming victories in the 1990 and 1992 presidential elections, was beaten by Emil Constantinescu, the CDR candidate.

In Bulgaria, the ruling ex-communists suffered their worst defeat since 1989 in the country's presidential elections. Petar Stoyanov, supported by three opposition formations represented in the parliament, became president with 60 percent of the vote as opposed to 40 percent for Ivan Marazov, the Socialist candidate. Mr. Stoyanov ran on a campaign pledging to bring the country closer to the EU and NATO and to implement the same type of sweeping reforms that have been so successful in Central Europe. His landslide victory was generally seen as a popular vote of no-confidence in the socialist party.

In many respects Romania and Bulgaria share the typical characteristics associated with the volatile conditions in the Balkans. Both countries have restive ethnic minorities and a legacy of centuries of imperial domination. Interstate relations are still greatly affected by a long history of conflict and animosity. After 1989, successive governments were slow to embark on economic and social reforms. A crumbling social security system, high unemployment, rising crime, and pervasive corruption led to widespread popular discontent.

Not surprisingly, Romanians and Bulgarians are still waiting for the benefits promised from democracy and a market economy. Instead, they have economies run by ex-communists and former secret-service agents who capitalize on the lack of market rules and competitiveness.

Both countries, however, have the capacity and ability to build democracies based on market economies. No significant political party questions the legitimacy of ethnically Hungarian political organizations. A state treaty between Hungary and Romania in mid-1996 explicitly mentioned rights of the Hungarian minority. Similarly, the initial ethnic tension in Bulgaria subsided. The Movement for Rights and Freedoms, an ethnically Turkish party, has become a legitimate political player.

Stepping stones

Both countries also have institutionalized many of the attributes of democratic process. In Bulgaria over the last six years, there has been a peaceful and uncontested transition of power from one political coalition to another based on a popular vote. In Romania, the PDS conceded its first defeat and pledged to work as a constructive opposition.

Romanians and Bulgarians realize that the benefits of democracy and a market economy are neither automatic nor immediate, and require a long and hard process of transformations. The liberalization of the news media, however insufficient it might be, has contributed to public discourse. The public now demands accountability and responsiveness on the part of the governing and opposition parties.

Finally, all significant parties and coalitions in Bulgaria and Romania agree that no alternative exists to close association with Western Europe. International economic and political institutions thus have great leverage with the policy formation in both countries. Romania's state treaty with Hungary has been signed and ratified, despite some domestic opposition. And, despite the Bulgarian Socialist Party's resistance to reforms, Bulgaria might finally begin to privatize its industry in order to receive $115 million from the IMF.

We need to look beyond the immediate goal of short-term stabilization of the Balkans. Unlike the former Yugoslavia, Romania and Bulgaria have already demonstrated that they have the potential to become genuine democracies. They aspire to be part of Europe and can achieve that goal if not treated as Balkan outcasts.

Blagovest T. Tashev is a PhD candidate in the graduate programs in international studies at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va.

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