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The East: Analysis From Washington--The Coming End Of The 'Party of Power'

  • Paul Goble

Washington, D.C., 9 June 1999 (RFE/RL) - Economic failures, geopolitical isolation, and electoral experience are combining to bring an end to the rule of the "party of power," one of the most characteristic features of the post-communist transition in the former Soviet republics.

An amorphous and non-ideological group consisting of a non-party president, a politicized bureaucracy and a depoliticized government closely linked to non-official groups, the "party of power" serves as a buffer between communists on the left and nationalists on the right in the Russian Federation, Ukraine, Moldova, and other post-Soviet states.

At the present time, the "party of power" both as a concept and a reality still dominates the political landscape. But as Vladimir Bruger writes in the May 26 issue of the Moscow newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta-Sodruzhestvo," its days may be numbered because of forces beyond its control. And he suggests that it is likely to be replaced by a politicized politics and a more pragmatic political style.

The first of these forces working against the continued dominance of the "party of power" in these countries is the continuing if not accelerating collapse of their economies. Because the parties of power have justified their remaining in office by pointing to the evils that either the nationalists or communists might bring, they have often escaped public attack even if they have not received much public support.

But as the economic situation in these countries has deteriorated, the parties of power no longer can make that argument work to their advantage. "In contrast to ideology or PR," Bruger writes, "economics demands an accounting for everything that is done and not done." And ever more people and politicians are deciding that the alternatives denounced by the party of power may in fact not be worse than the incumbents.

The second force undermining the continuation of this form of governance is the changing geopolitical position of these countries. Immediately after the collapse of communism, the first post-Soviet governments -- which included second-level party nomenklatura officials as well as a thing stratum of reformers -- expected that the West would not only provide substantial aid but work to integrate these countries into Western organizations.

Neither has happened, at least as far as the population can see, Bruger notes. And as a result, ever more people in these countries are prepared to consider supporting parties of the left or the right that advocate policies that can be variously described as committed to self-reliance or going it alone.

And the third force is the growing electoral experience of both politicians and the populace in these states. In all these countries, the parties of power were able to coopt many politicians, and these ideologically based leaders were all too willing to be coopted -- because the party of power had all the power -- and all too willing not to challenge the bases of the party of power -- because they hoped eventually to use its levers themselves.

One distinguishing charactreristic of this tendency, Bruger notes, is that in both Russia and Ukraine, the political parties who form the majorities in parliament have accepted the designation of opposition and have behaved as such.

But that pattern is beginning to change as a result of the pressures of electoral politics. Some of those now aspiring to office were themselves earlier cast of the party of power and have changed their views. After being fired as Russian premier, Viktor Chernomyrdin's political party adopted a very different stand on the constitutional arrangements that have allowed the Russian party of power to control all decision making.

Even more important, as the populations of these countries gain experience with elections, those politicians who hope to win support are now being forced to distance themselves from the failings of those now in power. Thus, as Bruger points out, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov immediately declared that his new party "cannot be held responsible for everything that was done before us."

None of this necessarily sounds an immediate deathknell for the parties of power. On the one hand, the authoritarian traditions of these countries mean that many leaders, even those who head more ideologically based parties, prefer the informal and backroom dealings that the parties of power have practiced over the last few years.

And on the other, the parties of power in the past have shown their ability to manipulate the media and the political system during elections and successfully maintain themselves in power by portraying their opponents as more dangerous than themselves.

But economic collapse, international isolation, and experience with elections have fragmented the parties of power in all these countries, Bruger notes, and thus reduced their ability to respond to challenges. And that makes it ever more likely that over the next decade, the current "party of power" system will give way to a more ideologically and interest-based politics.

That may produce bad things as well as good, Bruger concludes. But he adds that it will at least mean that the post-communist transition will shift into a new phase, one that will put still more distance between where these countries will be and where they were in the communist past.