LM Archives
  7:37 AM BST
LM Commentary Review Search
Comment Current LM Web review Mailing
lists Discuss Chat Events Search Archives Subject index Links Merchandise Overview FAQ Feedback Toolbar

Three years after the dawn of what was supposed to be a new age of freedom in Eastern Europe, democracy is distinctly out of fashion reports Dominic Salter

Elitism rules in the East

Who would have thought back in late 1989, when democracy arrived in Eastern Europe, that by the start of 1993 Eastern Europeans would still be voting for Stalinist parties? Well, they are.

In Lithuania, the country's pro-market leader, Vytautas Landsbergis, suffered a defeat at the hands of Algirdas Brasauskas, a former Stalinist, in recent elections. In Romania, an old stalwart of the Ceausescu era, Ion Iliescu, was elected president once again at the expense of the pro-Western Emil Constantinescu. Everywhere else in Eastern Europe, the reformed Stalinist parties are winning support from disillusioned voters.

Banana republics

Instead of democracy, capitalism has brought political systems which have more in common with the 'banana republics' of the third world. Take Georgia. Georgia elected president Zviad Gamsakhurdia in its first free elections in 1990, only to see him ousted by a military coup in January 1992, and replaced by the former Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, after elections in October 1992. Shevardnadze won with 96 per cent of the vote. Sounds familiar? You guessed it. He was the only candidate. Shevardnadze was forced to confess that it was just like the old days, when he was first secretary of the Georgian Communist Party.

In Poland where there are plenty of candidates, nobody wants to vote for them, and there is no enthusiasm for democracy either. Only nine per cent of people polled in a recent survey thought that communism had been replaced by democracy (The Foreign Broadcast Information Service 1992, No175, p23). Given the dissatisfaction that prevails among ordinary people, it is hardly surprising that only 42 per cent of the electorate bothered to vote in Poland's general election in October 1992, compared to 62 per cent in the 1989 election.

Even fewer people bother to vote in Hungary, where elections have regularly attracted less than a third of the electorate. A by-election in Komaron-Esztergom was declared invalid three times due to a lack of voter participation; finally on the fourth attempt they managed a 27 per cent turnout. Abstentionism has been the predominant response to the arrival of the parliamentary process in Eastern Europe.

It's hardly surprising that so few people can bring themselves to vote for parties which represent nothing and nobody other than an elite minority. The result is that, in most places in Eastern Europe, no one party commands the support of a majority. Most governments are made up of patchwork coalitions of small and weak parties.

Uninspiring individuals

Given that political parties represent nobody, it is possible that any individual can suddenly come to the fore as a leading politician. On the one hand, this means that nonentities like Hanna Suchocka can go from being a law professor to Poland's prime minister overnight. On the other hand, it means that just about anybody with a personality (or a personal fortune as the case may be) can make a disproportionate impact on politics. The lack of contending political programmes and genuine political debate is leading to empty contests between uninspiring individuals.

Having promised the East democracy, Western commentators are now desperately trying to explain why nobody is interested. Leading American expert Charles Gati is still seeking to pin the blame on the old Stalinist system:

'The pervasive condition of backwardness, the absence of a strong entrepreneurial middle class and the economic ruin that communism has left behind present formidable obstacles to economic recovery and renewal. In the absence of a more tolerant political culture, chances for economic progress are poor; without economic progress, chances for the new democracies to take hold are equally poor.' (Foreign Affairs, Vol71 No4 1992, p74)

Gati is right to identify economic decline as a key component in the failure of democracy in the East. How can politicians win popular support when they have no ability to meet people's basic needs? The lack of any dynamic behind the market economy in the East means that the elites have nothing to offer people. The result is that the new political class has been discredited even faster than the Stalinists were before it. Where new elites ousted the communists - in Poland and Czechoslovakia as well as Lithuania-- they too have now been ousted in turn.


So Gati is right to blame the failure of democracy in the East on the failure of economics. But he is wrong to suggest that it is the mess bequeathed by Stalinism which explains why capitalism is taking so long to take off.

There are plenty of past examples of backward countries becoming dynamic capitalist economies in a relatively short period of time. In the 1970s, South Korea was transformed from a predominantly peasant country into a dynamic capitalist economy in the space of five years. By contrast, in the space of four years, the gross national product of nearly every country in Eastern Europe has declined by double-digit percentages. There is no sign of capital investment from the West going to the East on anything like the scale which South Korea received from Japan in the 1970s.

The truth is that, at a time of world economic slump, capitalism is simply too weak to invest in the East. The crisis of international capitalism means that, instead of taking the places they were promised among the advanced industrial nations, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have been consigned to conditions common to the third world.

High expectations

As well as continuing to blame Stalinism for the failures of Eastern Europe, Western commentators have tried to blame Easterners themselves. It is now commonplace to criticise Eastern Europeans for having expectations which were too high. But who gave them such high expectations of the market economy in the first place? It's a bit rich for Western commentators to blame Easterners for expecting too much, after all the triumphalist promises they made in 1989.

Blaming the people of the East for the problems of the East is an attempt to mask the inability of the West to deliver on the promises of 1989. Even former US foreign affairs supremo Henry Kissinger has admitted that the Western powers are to blame: 'It is hardly to the credit of the West that after talking for a generation about freedom for Eastern Europe, so little is done to vindicate it.' (New York Post, 3 March 1992)

The ruling elites in Eastern Europe have also tried to escape the blame for the mess they preside over by blaming others for their problems. In the September 1992 elections in Estonia, supposedly a democratic pioneer of the former Soviet republics, 40 per cent of the population were barred from voting because they were not considered genuine Estonian citizens. The disenfranchisement of half the electorate was part of the government's attempt to scapegoat the Russian minority as the cause of Estonia's problems.

Elitist politics are fast becoming the order of the day in Eastern Europe, as the new political class increasingly blames the masses for the economic and political impasse.

Vaclav Havel, the former playwright and darling of the Western intelligentsia, lost the presidency of Czechoslovakia last year. His explanation for this defeat was that the mass of Czechs simply could not cope with a civilised democracy: 'They aren't used to civil society', observed Havel, 'and they are adapting to the new conditions in a very painful fashion.' (Guardian, 25 September 1992)

Too stupid

Lia Trandafir, writing in the Romanian newspaper Tinerama, alleged that most Romanians are simply too stupid to know how to vote: 'After 45 years of brainwashing and terror, they can no longer tell fact and fiction apart and may well plump for the devil they know.' (Quoted in the Independent, 26 September 1992)

Some Eastern elites have concluded that it would be better if the working class was excluded from politics altogether. This solution has been discussed openly in Poland, where the parliamentary system has been paralysed by the failure of the electorate to elect a majority government.

The increasingly elitist political climate has led to the rise of authoritarian practices. In Eastern Europe today, elected parliaments are routinely ignored and presidents rule by decree. So in Poland, president Lech Walesa, the West's favourite democrat, has long pushed for greater powers to avoid parliamentary opposition to harsh economic reforms. In August 1992, the 'Little Constitution' was passed, giving him the right to issue decrees with the force of law, as well as to impose martial law and military mobilisation. Similar powers have been granted to presidents from Russia to Romania.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 51, January 1993

Subscribe to LM




Mail: webmaster@mail.informinc.co.uk