Eastern Europe's New Leaders : Most Leaders Have Given as Their Primary Aim a Return to Europe and Normality

By Bugajski, Janusz | The World and I, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Eastern Europe's New Leaders : Most Leaders Have Given as Their Primary Aim a Return to Europe and Normality


Bugajski, Janusz, The World and I


During a recent Polish election campaign, nationalist candidates accused former Solidarity officials of having a "left of center" bias by allegedly making compromises with ex-communists. Adam Michnik, a prominent Solidarity strategist, replied that unlike their nationalist critics, Poland's pro-market forces had a clear and unequivocal "west of center" program.

In the past decade, several east European countries have achieved significant success in dismantling the old political structures and building pluralistic democracies. Where an alternative elite was present, a wide spectrum of political parties emerged in which the influence of ex-communists was democratized without a violent upheaval. In the words of Czech President Vcclav Havel, "Winston Churchill once said that he could promise England nothing but blood and sweat; here the sweat may flow but not the blood."

The reformist states also proved successful in developing an entrepreneurial middle class and establishing the underpinnings of a capitalist economy. This does not mean that democratization and the free-market process have been completed in central Europe. Further legal and property reforms are necessary to bring these states into line with standards prevailing in the European Union.

In a number of other countries, particularly in the Balkans and the former Soviet republics, the reform process has been obstructed for much of the 1990s by an entrenched postcommunist stratum. The ruling elites failed to transform their economies and institutionalize democratic pluralism. The development of a civic society and the rule of law was sidetracked by authoritarianism, weak democratization, nationalism, economic stagnation, organized crime, and corruption.

In several instances, the abuses of nationalism have further thwarted the transformation process. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic once remarked that the Serbs know how to fight better than they know how to work. This was clearly a convenient cover for promoting ethnic conflicts and prolonging the Yugoslav dictatorship.

Importance of leadership

In east Europe's diversified and dynamic political landscape, it is useful to focus on the role of individual leaders and their involvement in the transformation process. There are two valid reasons for such an approach: first, because of the important role individuals have played in the fall of communist domination and, second, because of the weakness of postcommunist institutions in many east European countries.

The new leaders fall into three general categories: former communists, anticommunists, and noncommunists. Their political pedigree, however, does not determine their behavior and policies after the collapse of monoparty rule. Some ex-communists have undergone a genuine political metamorphosis into democrats and are reliable participants in the transition process. Other former Leninists have transformed their communist collectivism into ethnic exclusivism and have employed nationalism and populism to maintain their grip on power.

Likewise, some former anticommunist dissidents have become ardent nationalists or proponents of a statist paternalism. Others have upheld their democratic credentials and remain as beacons of tolerance, pluralism, and democracy. In still other cases, individuals who were not active in the former ruling parties nor in the anticommunist opposition movements have assumed prominent positions in the new governments. It is therefore valuable to examine the role of key leaders, whether presidents or prime ministers, in the process of dismantling the old systems and replacing them with capitalist democracies.

Former communists

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski epitomizes the transformation from communist official to democratic head of state. His election in 1995 alongside his defeat of former anticommunist Solidarity leader Lech Walesa also underscored that the Polish elites had avoided polarization and vindictiveness, which could have seriously jeopardized the peaceful process of transition. …

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