The Return of the Reds

Article excerpt

The communists of the old Soviet bloc were always scared of their own people. Nothing frightened them more than a genuine mass movement--it showed how phony their own party-inspired "mass movements" really were. And no single person frightened them more than Lech Walesa, Nobel Prize winner and leader of the Solidarity trade union in Poland in the 1980s. Their fears were well founded, of course. As soon as glasnost in the Soviet Union offered a sliver of an opening, Walesa led Solidarity to power in the Polish Parliament in 1989, and communism quickly crashed across Eastern Europe. Walesa became president of Poland in 1990, the Soviet Union collapsed the next year, and there could no longer be any question about what The People wanted.

That these same people could utterly change their minds five years later sent shock waves far beyond Poland last week. Lech Walesa, pre-eminent symbol of Eastern Europe's quest for freedom, defeated by an ex-organizer of the Communist Youth League? Unthinkable. Yet Poland's new president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, was not just any former apparatchik. In a hard-fought campaign full of slick, Western-style imagery and sloganeering, the telegenic 41-year-old recast himself as a moderate social democrat. Walesa, by contrast, came off as shrill and pugnacious. And now that ex-communists have won top office in almost every country in Eastern Europe--and are expected to win Russian parliamentary elections on Dec. 17--Poland's election looked like more than a referendum on the personal foibles of the electrician from Gdansk. Just as Walesa's rise to power signaled the end of one era, his fall from grace seemed to mark the close of another. In the brave new world of post-post-communism, the Communists aren't afraid of the people anymore

So should the West be afraid of the Communists? Kwasniewski hastened to reaffirm his commitment to the pro-Western Policies Walesa introduced. "I want to reassure everyone that Poland will not depart from the path of reforms," he declared. President Clinton seemed to take Kwasniewski at his word; he called to welcome the new president's pledge of continuity. Still, Western leaders will be watching the new regime carefully in the months to come. …