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Europe: Southeast Europe -- An Analysis Of A Region In Turmoil

  • Jan de Weydenthal

Prague, 6 January 1997 (RFE/RL) - Southeastern Europe is in turmoil as several countries experience sudden political changes.

The turmoil has been prompted by diverse developments. In Romania, it was Emil Constantinescu's victory in the presidential contest that paved the road to change that ended long decades of communist or post-communist rule.

In Bulgaria, opposition-supported candidate Petar Stoyanov won the presidency, while a major split occurred within the post-communists formations, which until recently seemed to have had a true lock on power. This appeared to have been prompted by post-communist governmental corruption and a dramatic economic downfall.

And in Serbia, continuing public demonstrations against the annulment of opposition electoral victories increasingly advance a prospect of a major political turnaround.

The region has long been ripe for change. Declining standards of living -- caused by corruption, political ineptitude or international sanctions -- fueled popular dissatisfaction with the way the authority was exercised. And this led to demands for change.

This movement, spontaneous and widespread, has been remarkably peaceful. These are not revolutionary and/or violent outbursts, which in the past swept away dictators such as Nicolae Ceausescu or Todor Zhivkov from power. Rather, the Romanian and Bulgarian events bring to mind the now-distant example of East Germany, where the communists were simply pushed out of power.

And the changes have been lawful. Changes in Romania and Bulgaria took place at, or were prompted by, the ballot box. Even in Serbia, where public protests have been directed against a legally and freely-elected leader, President Slobodan Milosevic, the demonstrations upheld the rule of law. This fact alone makes them politically significant.

The turmoil takes different forms. It produces public marches and demonstrations. It brings down political parties and forces massive leadership reshuffles. And it undermines the long-maintained methods of rule, bringing the specter of instability.

The turmoil is contagious, or it appears to be so. It spreads from one country to another, bringing together various strains of protest. Because it is the protest that is at the root of the various movements. Protest against abuse of power, against impoverishment, against the disregard for the rule of law.

The turmoil is widespread, affecting various social groups and even institutions. It energizes poor peasants and workers as well as middle classes. It involves established churches -- as demonstrated in the growing support given by the Serbian Orthodox Church to the protesters. It affects the police and the military, the traditional guardians of the establishment.

It is likely that the spread and the magnitude of these protest movements have been helped by international pressures. These have been quite apparent in determined criticism of the Albanian elections last year. And they bore fruit in the electoral contests in Romania and Bulgaria. International pressure played a major role in Serbian politics as well, forcing the government to restrain its reactions to demonstrations in fear of reimposition of economic sanctions. These sanctions, imposed as a result of Serbia's involvement in the Bosnian conflict, were a major factor in Serbia's economic decline.

Neither was the example missed of other Central European countries, where rule of law has been strictly upheld and economy has improved. And this provided foundations for the conviction that things could be organized better and more democratically.

All these have been communicated to the peoples of Southeastern Europe by a multitude of international communication carriers: radios, television broadcasts, Internet messages and Web sites and so on. Once relatively isolated and centrally controlled, the region has become more and more open to outside influences.

But, widespread and popular as they are, the protest movements clearly lack political coherence. There is hardly any theme or goal that would unite them. They are sudden, spontaneous and non-revolutionary. But they can also become ephemeral and progressively marginal unless they find a focus, either economic or political. Such a focus is urgently needed.