Ex-Communists Retake the Helm

East Europeans, once swept along by anti-Communist fervor, now vote their wallets

ACROSS Russia and Eastern Europe, citizens who have found the shift to free-market economies too harsh and difficult are turning for salvation to their former Communist masters.

The victory of Alexander Kwasniewski - once a senior Communist Party official - in Poland's presidential elections on Sunday is the latest stitch in a regional pattern that has taken shape over the past two years.

The next case comes up in Russia next month, when voters will elect a new parliament. Topping the opinion polls is the Communist Party, which is expected to make substantial gains.

Though conditions differ from country to country, some parallels are clear, says Oleg Bogomolov, a Moscow-based expert on Central Europe.

''The social price of this transformation [to capitalist economies] has been too high everywhere,'' he argues. ''This is a very crucial factor that explains the trend toward social democracy in all these countries.''

With most people in most countries worse off than they used to be - at least for the time being - the politicians who are succeeding are those who promise to take care of voters.

And throughout the region, former Communists have best identified themselves as the ''forces that at least declare themselves to be more socially oriented, to compensate for the harm done by market economies,'' says Irina Kobrinskaya, a political scientist at the Moscow branch of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

But their success ''does not mean the return of the Communists,'' Ms. Kobrinskaya stresses. ''It is a normal pattern of development for post-communist societies'' as the political pendulum swings back from the euphoria of 1989 and 1990, when communism collapsed across the map of Europe.

''The free market and democracy existed in peoples' minds before as miraculous instruments for solving problems. The past several years have inevitably meant the destruction of those myths,'' says Alexei Miller of the Institute for Slavic and Balkan Studies here.

Over the past two years, voters have reached back to Communists or former Communists in a number of elections:

* Poland: On Sunday, Alexander Kwasniewski beat Poland's anti-Communist symbol, Lech Walesa, for the presidency. He had strong support from young adults and, to a lesser extent, elderly pensioners. But already, in 1993, Polish voters elected a leftist majority to parliament.

* Russia: In a recent local election in Volgograd, Communists won 22 of 24 races. They are unlikely to achieve that kind of dominance nationally in next month's parliamentary elections, but polls consistently show them solidly leading other parties with the support of between 14 and 30 percent of the electorate.

* Bulgaria: Nearly a year ago, the Communist Party won an absolute majority in parliament with 43 percent of the popular vote. The previous parliament was dominated by a right-of-center party that still holds the presidency.

* Hungary: The first former East Bloc country to institute free-market reforms, Hungary was also early to see a strong voter backlash. The Socialist Party won 56 percent of the vote two years ago- an overwhelming victory in a multiparty system.

* Lithuania: Parliament is under the control of the former Communist Party, now called the Democratic Party of Labor. Voters also elected President Algirdas Brazauskas, from the same party, in 1993.

But none of the countries where former Communists have reemerged in charge of policy have undergone any real change in direction, Kobrinskaya points out.

Communist election victories, under whatever name, have led to ''a sort of readjustment'' of policy details, rather than any attempt to turn back the clock.

In Poland, for example, Mr. Kwasniewski, at the head of the Democratic Left Alliance party has presented himself as a pragmatist, with a clearly Western bent.

The free marketeers who led the countries of Eastern Europe out of the Soviet Union's shadow and onto the capitalist path have lost some of their luster as they have tried to put their dreams into practice.

Whether Russia's Communist party has turned its back on the past quite as decisively as have its partners in the former Warsaw Pact is less clear. ''Post-Communists in Eastern Europe are social democrats ... our Communists are on the way to this transformation, but they have not made it yet,'' says Mr. Bogomolov, who is himself running for the Russian parliament on a Social Democrat ticket.

But in both Russia and its neighbors, former Communists are benefiting from the electorate's desire for administrative experience in their leaders - an advantage that the Communists monopolized when they controlled their one-party states.

While Eastern Europeans five years ago were riding on a crest of anticommunism, consumed by ideological passions, today they are concerned with more mundane questions of living standards, Dr. Miller says.

''Societies have been de-ideologized, and post-Communists come to this situation with some kind of pragmatism,'' he says.

''This pendulum will swing'' in post-Communist states, says Kobrinskaya, predicting that its arc will shorten as societies start to stabilize.

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