Ex-Communists, Back in Power, Give E. Europe a Shade of Pink

Poverty, nostalgia create support for reconstituted apparatchiks

WHEN the democratic revolutions of 1989 put European communism in the ash heap of history, Communist Party faithful behind the fallen Iron Curtain were suddenly born again, adopting new names and swearing allegiance to free-market principles.

But observers in recent weeks have begun to see tinges of communism resurface among Eastern European politicians, fueling doubts over their commitment to capitalism.

When voters -- struggling with the hardship and poverty that accompanied reform -- started voting former communists back into power in fair elections, Westerners watched nervously. But after regaining power in Lithuania in 1992, Poland in 1993, and Hungary in 1994, the ex-communists didn't immediately move to slow reform.

Now many observers are having to reassess the actions of reconstituted communists.

In Poland and Hungary, both in the vanguard of market transition, new-age but left-leaning governments are now hesitating to press on with deregulation. The responsibility of governing has brought internal disputes over reform strategies -- and deadlock.

''These parties [with former communists] prevailed due to the campaign promises that they gave, which were very populist,'' says Piotr Nowina-Konopka, a leader of Poland's main opposition Freedom Union party. ''They are finding out their promises are unkeepable.''

Former communists are now back in power in all but a few Central European states, the Czech Republic being the most notable exception. In several countries -- Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania -- the Party apparatchiks never fully lost control after 1989.

In Slovakia's case, former Party boss Vladimir Meciar slammed the brakes on privatization soon after he assumed the premiership in December. State-run Slovak television has also moved to limit free expression on the airwaves, removing three shows specializing in political satire.

Poland, meanwhile, typifies former communists' problems in nations that have already taken big steps towards a free market. The talk is not about returning to the past but how to proceed.

On Feb. 7, Prime Minister Waldemar Pawlak resigned, accused by President Lech Walesa of mismanaging reforms. The Cabinet, comprising the same tandem of parties and a new prime minister, Jozef Oleksy, faces approval by parliament this week. Yet leaders of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), the largest coalition partner, reaffirm unswerving support of market economics.

''There will be no danger that we'll change our minds. It's important to remain credible,'' says Jerzy Szmajdzinski, a top SLD leader.

Skeptics say the coalition leaders don't speak for everyone in their parties, though. Most high-profile coalition politicians -- such as Mr. Szmajdzinski and SLD chief Alexander Kwasniewski -- may be convinced reformers, but the rank-and-file still find it hard to forsake the past.

''There are some who support the market,'' Polish historian Jerzy Holzer said. ''But others are still attached to the egalitarian notions espoused by communism. Especially in the countryside, the peasants are nostalgic, and are convinced that their situation was better under the communist system.''

Most Warsaw political observers say Mr. Pawlak's Peasant Party (PSL) bears much of the responsibility for slowing reforms in Poland. Pawlak took months to finalize plans for privatizing large-scale Polish enterprises. And former Foreign Minister Andrzej Olechowski resigned this year, saying NATO and European Union membership wasn't a priority for Pawlak.

SLD leaders admit profound differences exist between the coalition members: ''There's a city-country element,'' Szmajdzinski said. ''There are different interests at work in the different constituencies.''

The story is similar in Hungary. Prime Minister Gyula Horn's government struggles to maintain momentum, split by a power struggle between modernizers and the nostalgia-bound.

The old guard seems to have the upper hand for now. The most reform-minded member of the Cabinet, Finance Minister Lazlo Bekesi, resigned in late January after the government annulled a privatization deal that was to give a United States company control of a Hungarian hotel chain. Although a new finance minister, Lajos Bokros, is to take over March 1, the turmoil has shaken foreign investor confidence.

Hope for reform in Poland and Hungary persists, however. Mr. Holzer, the historian, said the Polish and Hungarian versions of communism didn't fully trample the entrepreneurial spirit: ''It was communism that didn't take ideology too seriously,'' he said.

Szmajdzinski, the Polish SLD leader, insisted he and other party leaders harbored reform ideals long before communism's collapse. ''For many years we were in internal opposition to the system,'' he said. ''1989 didn't come as a shock for us. We felt such a moment would come -- that it was inevitable.''

People like Bronislaw Geremek offer proof that former communists' philosophies can evolve. Once a Communist Party member, Mr. Geremek became influential in the Solidarity movement that brought down Polish communism. Now he's a leading Freedom Union legislator.

''I was a child of World War II, in which my world collapsed,'' Mr. Geremek said. ''Communism offered a new vision, and that appealed to me at first. It wasn't until 1968 [when Soviet tanks invaded Czechoslovakia] that I understood communism was a dead ideology, and I became an anticommunist.

''Later,'' he added, ''I came to a realization that without a market no freedom is possible.''

Nowina-Konopka and other Freedom Union officials say they can work with SLD leaders, but leaders like Kwasniewski and Szmajdzinski don't necessarily speak for the entire SLD.

''With Kwasniewski we speak the same language, have the same background,'' Nowina-Konopka said. ''But on the local levels, there are no Kwasniewskis.''

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