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East European Perspectives: February 23, 2000


23 February 2000, Volume 2, Number 4

Part IV B: Radical Politics In Post Communist East Central Europe

By Michael Shafir

The Radical Left
B) Romania and Russia

As shown in the first part of the chapter on the radical left (RFE/RL East European Perspectives, No. 3, 9 February 2000), public opinion polls indicative of a "communist return" are often being read out of their immediate national contexts. In the Czech Republic, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia's popularity may be due to its having become the only genuine parliamentary force in the opposition. In Hungary, on the other hand, the unreformed Hungarian Workers' Party has never been able to make it to the legislature. In Romania, the Communist Party (PCR) was banned on 31 December 1989, but there have been several attempts to revive it, and the nostalgia for the days of Nicolae Ceausescu comes to the fore every January. Back in the "good old times," the birthdays of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, which were days apart, were marked with great national pomp. Now, scores gather at the graves of the two former PCR leaders in Ghencea cemetery in Bucharest to honor their memory. There are definitely a lot more than scores who regret communism, yet how large is the part of the crowd that is willing to act beyond a nostalgic sigh is difficult to estimate.

The first attempt to re-establish the PCR dates back to July 1991, when Virgiliu Zbaganu, an engineer by profession, announced that a 70-member Committee for the Organization of the PCR has been established. Soon thereafter the now-defunct weekly Democratia, whose editor in chief was former cultural censor Eugen Florescu, published a supplement of what claimed to be the reborn version of Scinteia (The Spark), the PCR daily. But Democratia soon went bankrupt and the reborn PCR's founding-father, Zbaganu, fared even worse, being run over by a speeding train in August 1992. Yet another group calling itself the National Committee of Initiative for the Organization of the New PCR held its first meeting in May 1993 at Ceausescu's grave and in August the same body announced that it had chosen an anthem for the new-old party. Not surprisingly, the anthem was to verse written by former court poet Adrian Paunescu. When this committee gathered again at Ceausescu's tomb to mark his birthday in January 1994, it called for the rehabilitation of both Ceausescu and Ion Antonescu, in a perfect illustration of the "red-brown" alliances that were emerging nearly everywhere in the former communist countries (Evenimentul zilei, 10 and 28 August 1993; Adevarul, 27 January 1994).

Meanwhile, a group in Targu Jiu, the heart of Romania's mining industry, announced in October 1993 that it had held a "national conference" of a revived PCR, and in December that year a similar "national conference" was held in the southern town of Curtea de Arges by another group making the same claims (Evenimentul zilei, 4 October and 13 December 1993; Cotidianul, 5 October 1993). The Targu Jiu group in May 1994 was led by one Victor Hancu, who claimed to be an economist by training, and in May 1994 it applied for registration with the Bucharest Municipal Tribunal. The tribunal approved the registration, but the Supreme Court of Justice nullified the decision the next month, ruling that the party's statutes did not include a specific reference to the "PCR-Targu Jiu" (the name under which the party applied for registration) being a formation respecting the constitutional provisions of a multiparty system, private property and the principles of a market economy. The Supreme Court, moreover, noted that the PCR-Targu Jiu was raising a claim to the enormous confiscated assets of communist-era PCR, thereby implicitly claiming that it was the continuator of a non-democratic party (see the report of the Romanian Intelligence Service for 1993 in Adevarul, 21 November 1994).

The neo-communists, however, were very much following the "principles of a market economy" when attempting to lay their hands on the PCR assets, and, as other attempts to revive the party showed, the drive to resuscitate the party was at least in part motivated by these mundane purposes, rather than by strictly ideological ones. In October 1995 the Bucharest Municipal Tribunal rejected the registration of another revival attempt, this time by a would-be "PCR-Drobeta Turnu Severin," led by one Virgil Vintilescu. The opposition National Peasant Party Christian Democratic as well as several civic associations, the most important of which was the Association of Former Political Prisoners, had objected to the registration on the grounds that the constitution prohibits parties and organizations of communist or fascist origin. The tribunal accepted these arguments, as well as the argument that the Supreme Court's ruling on the PCR-Targu Jiu must be viewed as a binding judicial precedent (Adevarul and Ziua, 20 October 1995).

Several other radical left organizations came into being in the early 1990s, some of which duplicated already existing organizations or were soon duplicated themselves. One of these was the Socialist Party of Romania (PSR), registered with the Bucharest tribunal on 18 August 1992 and led by a person claiming professorship, Florian Petrescu, who was most likely taking advantage of the fact that the Romanian language makes no distinction between a high school teacher and a university professor. The PSR (not to be confused with the Socialist Party, or PS, set up in 1994), in July 1994 began publishing the monthly Scinteia socialismului (Spark of socialism), where it called for, among other things, "putting on trial and punishing Romania's traitors, robbers, and demolishers" and "ensuring that Romanian foreign policy is made in Bucharest and not in the West and over the ocean." The party's views would have probably remained largely unknown, were it not for the Greater Romania Party's (PRM) readiness to "host" its propagandists in the column of one of its two weeklies, Politica (see no. 167, 13 May 1995). In itself, this demonstrated what both the PRM and the PSR were all about--namely radical continuity. Yet the PSR was openly emphasizing its "socialist" outlook, which the PRM, though calling itself a "leftist party," never did, and this is reason enough to warrant taxonomization under the category of radical left.

A few post-communist Romanian formations of the radical left were oxymoronous. One of them called itself Partidul Comunistilor Romani Nepeceristi, whose approximate English translation is Party of Romanian Communists Non-members of the [former] Communist Party (Adevarul, 11 December 1995, Cronica romana, 29 December 1995). Even better as an oxymoron was a formation set up in July 1995 by Sandu Marin, the former deputy chairman of the PCR-Targu Jiu, which called itself the Romanian Christian Democratic Communist Party (Ziua, 26 July 1996). Marin's case apart, the Romanian radical left was just as prone to splits as its radical return competition (see following chapters) and for much of the same reasons, namely an overemphasis on ideology (the above-mentioned race after the PCR's nationalized assets notwithstanding). This often led to mutual recriminations, splits, and mutual attacks, as well as the inability to forge alliances with other leftist-inclined parties.

For example, in January 1995, Marian Trusca, said to be co-chairman of the League of Romanian Communists, announced that the Marxist Leninist Communist Party of Romania and the Romanian Workers' Party had merged under the denomination of the former. Whereupon he also announced that the "Extraordinary Commission" of the new party has decide to "expel a group of activists in the former PCR, who had infiltrated the Romanian Workers' Party" (Rompres, 12 January 1995). The jargon was unmistakable, the denominations confusing, as a totally different "Workers' Party" was just about to emerge. Trusca's league was Trotskyite, as it transpired from an article hosted (again) by Politica (no. 192) in November 1995, where the "co-chairman" recalled Lev Davidovich's "thesis" that "Youth is the locomotive of the Revolution." Consequently, he wrote, the league was backing the students' demand for gratis university attendance. Meanwhile, Trusca revealed, the league had also opposed at the Bucharest tribunal the attempt of the PCR-Drobeta Turnu Severin to register as a legalized party. No reason for this "non-brotherly" position was revealed. Perhaps it had to do with Trusca's Bolshevik credo, summarized a few years later as "whoever now is not with us, is against us, and will be done away without mercy, without wasting time, and without remorse" (Romania libera, 26 November 1997).

The members of the Workers' Party that Trusca had apparently "expelled" had never belonged to his league. The Romanian Workers' Party (PMR) began emerging in early 1995 and only a handful of those about to set it up had joined the league, whereupon the bulk were "expelled" from ranks they had never marched with. Borrowing the denomination of the PCR between 1948 and 1965, the PMR was set up as a result of a double-split. First, the PS had split from the Socialist Labor Party (PSM) in late 1994, largely due to inner-party conflicts provoked by the growing influence of deputy chairman and former Ceausescu court poet Paunescu on PSM leader Ilie Verdet, as well as to the fact that Tudor Mohora, also a deputy chairman, wanted to push the PSM towards "Gorbachevist" postures resisted by Verdet (Shafir, 1995). The splitters, however, soon split again. While Mohora went on to set up the PS, a faction headed by Ion Cristian Niculae set up the PMR in March, and the new party held its first congress in December 1994. A truck driver by profession, but also a trained shoemaker (which made some journalists ask Niculae if his leadership was due to both his and Ceausescu having shared the same professional training), Niculae reproached Mohora mainly for setting up a formation "of and for" intellectuals, rather than workers (Evenimentul zilei 20 February, 3 March 1995; Cronica romana, 6 December 1995; Ziua interview with Niculae, 18 December 1995; Libertatea interview with Niculae, 4 November 1997). He obviously resented the patronizing by Mohora, and was just as obviously neither versatile in, not preoccupied by, Marxist terminology. "By communism I understand a [sic] socialism under which everyone is better off," he told a journalist who interviewed him in late 1995 (Cronica romana, 12 December 1995). That put him in a different "league" than that of Trusca, who once more denounced the PRM, this time for "lacking the defined prerequisites of a workers' party," those being listed as "the Marxist-Leninist ideology, the struggle against private property, and [communist] symbols--the red flag with the hammer and sickle." The fact that the PMR chose as its symbol the five-pointed red star was apparently viewed by the Communist league's leader as a serious "deviation" (Cotidianul, 16 August 1995; Romanian radio, 9 December 1995).

The PMR declared it wanted to "preserve everything that has been well-done" under the previous system, but, mindful of the PCR-Targu Jiu precedent, it also hastened to add that it was backing a multiparty system and a market economy" (Azi, 31 July 1995). Niculae admitted that he had had "contacts" with the Targu Jiu initiative, but claimed that he had warned its members against "extremism" (Cronica romana interview, 12 December 1995). The party claimed to favor a "mixed socialist economy," with its leader clarifying the meaning of the term as "privatization of services, commerce, and small industries, but the large industry must be state-property and planned." What marked the PMR, however, was its readiness to openly admit (and take pride in) being a continuator of the former PCR, though Niculae personally said at its founding-congress that he was "distancing" himself from Ceausescu's "personality cult" and "from the privileges granted to members of the communist-time nomenclature" (Libertatea, 11 December 1995). In his eyes, the former economic system had been "a socialist garden, where, as in any garden, there had been some weeds and some beasts of prey," while the system that replaced it was "a capitalist jungle, where people find it more and more difficult, sometimes even impossible, to survive" (Adevarul, 11 December 1995).

Soon after its foundation, the PMR seemed to be heartened by the victory of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) in the 1995 ballot. Niculae saw it as signaling "the return of socialism in the whole wide world, soon after it had been enthroned by capitalism." That victory, he said, was likely to have an impact on Romanian political life, which "had deviated from the natural course of history after December 1989." And Niculae was not the only would-be Romanian communist leader to welcome developments in Russia. Gheorghe Ungureanu, leader of the oxymoronous Party of Romanian Communists Non-members of the Communist Party sent Zyuganov an open letter congratulating him and expressing the hope that he will be successful in his attempt to restore the Soviet Union. However, Ungureanu believed he could offer some "comradely" advice to Zyuganov as well. Russia, he said, must "of her own free will and without any discussion liberate southern Bessarabia, Serpents Island, the Transdniester and [northern] Bukovina" in order to make it possible for "the traditional friendship between our two people" to freely develop (Evenimentul zilei, 19 December 1995; Cronica romana, 29 December 1995). Ungureanu had apparently failed to note that most of these territories were now in Ukraine rather than Russia, that those that were not were part of the independent Moldovan Republic, and that the Russian evacuation of its army from the Transdniester was a matter for the government in Chisinau to handle.

Be that as it may, Niculae's hopes were clearly exaggerated. At its fist congress, held on the eve of the 1996 parliamentary elections (the PMR supported Iliescu in the presidential race), he claimed membership had reached 11,000 (interview in Cronica romana, 12 December 1995). The party managed to attract nearly five times as many votes--49,325--in the ballot for the Senate and 50,011 in that for the Chamber of Deputies. Yet this was well bellow the 3 percent threshold needed to gain parliamentary representation: 0.4 percent in both cases. The PSR did even worse--0.1 percent in the elections for the Senate and bellow that figure in the Chamber of Deputies' ballot (Cronica romana 8 November 1996). Other would-be inheritors of the PCR either performed worse, or not at all (the latter being due to non-registration, prompted by the fact that the minimum number of members needed for a party to lawfully register was increased from the ridiculously low 251 to 10,000).

The PMR has since been in the news on two occasions. In early 1996, it backed a mock re-trial of Ceausescu conveyed by an independent newspaper that (quite rightly) argued that the dictator's 1989 conviction and execution had been a judicial scandal (see OMRI Daily Digest, 12 January 1996). The self-styled court decided that a posthumous retrial must be conducted, and the PMR became one of its most vociferous partisans. In October that year it officially asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to review the dictatorial couple's sentence (Cronica romana, 30 October 1996), but the request did not produce a response. The second time that the PMR made the headlines was in August 1997, when Niculae announced that, following appeals from most of the party's branches, the PMR had decided to resume the PCR denomination at its forthcoming congress. He vehemently denied that the change of name was indicative of the intention to claim the PCR's assets, yet according to at least one report, the party intended to reclaim for itself and its members the membership dues paid into the PCR's treasury, with interest added (A.R. Press, 13 and 17 October 1997). The congress, held on 1-2 November did, indeed, pass a resolution approving the change of the party's denomination, and the PMR applied to the Bucharest tribunal to re-register, pointing out that since the party's statutes had not been amended, there could not possibly be any judicial justification for denying registration (Libertatea, 3 November 1997). The Bucharest tribunal, however, refused registration and Niculae went on a hunger strike in protest (Mediafax, 23 January 1998). The strike, however did not last more than 10 days, after which little was heard of the PMR/PCR until 5 July 1999, when it was suddenly announced on Romanian radio that the PSM had "absorbed" the PMR. The price for returning to the fold was Niculae's promotion to the position of PSM deputy chairman. This ended the only colorful episode in the otherwise dull history of Romania's post-1989 radical left.

In Russia, one encounters a situation that is entirely different. The legacy of communism there is longer and stronger, and the proportion of the population hit by repeated unsuccessful reforms is considerably larger than in East-Central Europe. The KPRF (claiming by 1999 a membership of 530,000, see McFaul et al., 1999, p. 79) not only nearly doubled its share of the vote on party lists in the 1995 elections (from 12.4 in 1993 to 22.7), but won nearly six times as many single-constituency mandates (58 compared to 10, out of a total of 225 such mandates). Furthermore, a significant part of the electorate voted for other left-wing parties that failed to reach the 5 percent threshold, though some came very close to doing so. The electoral bloc calling itself Communists-Workers' Russia for the Soviet Union (KTR-SS) gained 4.5 percent (and won a single-constituency mandate) and the Agrarian Party of Russia nearly 4 percent. An electoral bloc calling itself Power to the People, led by former Premier Nikolai Ryzhkov and by Sergei Baburin, received almost 2 percent of the votes and had 9 single-mandate seats in the Duma. Finally, an alliance of trade unions and industrialists calling itself the Union of Labor, received just over 1.5 percent. It has been calculated that due to vote dispersion, the left lost over 10 percent of its vote and approximately 40 mandates (Orttung, 1996, p. 7; McFaul et al., 1999, p. 77; Belin, 1999a).

Despite urging from the common Congress of the Union of Communist Parties umbrella organization in May 1998, in the 1999 elections the left again failed to reach unity and six electoral blocs belonging to this side of the spectrum competed in 1999: the KPRF; the KTR-SS; Stalin's Bloc for the USSR; the Party of Peace and Unity; the Movement in Support of the Army, Defense Industry, and Military Science (DPA); and Sergei Baburin's All-People's Union of Russia (ROS). (McFaul et al., 1999, p. 78). Perhaps no other formation in the former communist bloc embodied radical continuity to the extent that Stalin's Bloc for the USSR did. The bloc, led by Yevgenii Dzhugashvili, a grandson of the dictator, was joined in 1999 by the staunch anti-Semite Viktor Anpilov, who in 1995 was one of the leaders of the KTR-SS. The Agrarians--who in 1995 won 20 single-mandate seats (16 in 1993)--had their independent faction in the Duma after the 1995 elections with the help of deputies "lent" by the KPRF. But in 1999, they had split. Their leader, Mikhail Lapshin, switched his allegiance to the Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) alliance led by Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov and former Premier Yevgenii Primakov, while Duma faction leader Nikolai Kharitonov remained loyal to the KPRF (McFaul et al., 1999, p. 66; Belin, 1999a). The communists now also faced competition on the left from the Spiritual Heritage movement, a radical continuity formation led by Aleksei Podberezkin, which had run on their lists in 1995. Podberezkin had been a chief advisor for Zyuganov and had ran his campaign in the 1996 presidential elections, but was expelled from the KPRF Duma faction in August 1999, having turned into a harsh critic of Zyuganov. On the other hand, Ryzhkov now returned to the fold of the KPRF, leaving Baburin alone as ROS head (McFaul et al., 1999, p. 8; Belin, 1999a).

With the exception of the KPRF, none of these formations managed to elect deputies in 1999 on party lists. The best performance was that of the KTR-SS, which garnered 2.22 percent, followed at a distance by Stalin's Bloc with 0.61 percent, the DPA with 0.59 percent, the Party of Peace and Unity (0.37 percent), ROS (0.11 percent), and Spiritual Heritage (0.1 percent). ROS and the DPA elected two deputies in single constituency mandates, the Spiritual Heritage one deputy--but not Podberezkin himself. ("Russian Parliamentary Elections Results," 1999, RFE/RL website: http://www.rferl.org/elections/russia99results/index.html; Corwin, 2000; Belin, 2000b). Both Agrarian wings were represented in the Duma but the party was on the verge of a split between Kharitonov's and Lapshin's supporters ("RFE/RL Newsline," and ITAR-TASS, 23 November 1999) and it was unclear whether an independent Agrarian group will be formed in the legislature.

With 123 seats in the Duma, the KPFR remained the largest faction, having garnered 24.29 percent of the vote, which gives it 67 deputies elected on the party lists. The rest were elected in single-district constituencies. Although its share of the vote on party lists actually went up from 1995, when it scored 22.7 percent, its share of deputies elected on these lists dropped from 100 to 67 because, unlike in the previous elections, there were considerably less "wasted" votes for lists that did not make the 5 percent threshold (Belin, 2000a). It is, therefore, somewhat misleading to perceive the KPRF as the loser of the ballot, despite the fact that its total Duma representation had dropped from 158 to 123 seats. (The ballot, however, has to be repeated in eight single-constituency districts, where more than half of the voters voted against all candidates in the running. It was rescheduled for 19 March 2000, when the single-mandate Chechen representation might also be decided if the war ends till then, see ITAR-TASS, 29 December 1999).

Whether KPFR influence had also been reduced remained to be seen, since more than 106 deputies had won in single-constituencies as independents, but did so with covert backing of either the KPFR or the OVR.

Observers were, however, unanimous that the real victor of the 1999 ballot was the pro-government Unity, which elected a total of 72 deputies, 64 of whom were on party lists, on which its share of the vote was only slightly (23.32 percent) behind that of the KPFR. Aside from a less than fair election campaign by Unity--in which most state-media unabashedly promoted the new party--observers were unanimous in attributing the success of Unity, a "party" that had been launched only shortly before the elections, to the popularity of the new war in Chechnya, with which the name of Premier Vladimir Putin was associated. Though not running himself in the elections, Putin had openly endorsed Unity and was obviously counting on the new party to build on his announced candidacy for the 2000 presidential contest. President Yeltsin's surprising resignation on 31 December, with Putin stepping into his presidential shoes and the election date being thus brought forward from June to March, was further proof of the electoral impact of the Chechen war. In other words, the diminished strength of the KPRF had to be largely attributed to its having been outbid in its former successful nationalist electoral appeal (see following parts of this study).

This is food for thought, inviting speculation on both the future of the radical left and that of radical continuity. Is Russia's case one of "exceptionalism?" But the Romanian case had long been deemed to also be such a case (see Tismaneanu, 1997). Two "exceptionalisms" are enough to invalidate the "exception," and other examples can be added. Do these cases, then, rather indicate that for the left to be successful in post-communist East-Central Europe it must be able to have "transited" to being "socialist in form, nationalist in content," thus doing onto Stalin's celebrated formula what Marx had done to Hegel? As has been observed, the metamorphosis dates way back to communist times (hence my choice for depicting these formations as radical continuity), but the Russian elections of December 1999 may indicate that one way of taking the wind out of the sails of radical continuity is to outbid it on its ethnic appeal, rather than by presenting an alternative civic option. Should this hypothesis be confirmed in time and space (by which I mean other polities), the relevance of other "classic" cleavages, and above all that of class, may turn out to be greatly overestimated in the post-communist context.

Ten years after the demise of communism there may be some communist nostalgia and there is certainly resentment in face of an uncertain personal and national economic future across East-Central Europe. It would be irresponsible to dismiss signals from the electorate like those registered in 1999 in the Czech Republic. Yet, for the time being, communist doctrine remains by and large discredited. Not so the various shades of ethnocentrism that, for reasons already discussed, re-emerged claiming innocence of the sins of their predecessors, indeed denying that those predecessors had been anything but "good patriots."

For this reason, to concentrate on the radical continuity and on the radical return, rather than on the radical left, is not to indulge into using double-standards. Both radical left and radical return streams may be numerically insignificant (not so the partisans of radical continuity, I hasten to add), and both may be heard of mostly when they commemorate their respective "martyrs" and "heroes." But as Katherine Verdery shows, the "political lives of dead bodies" are telling something about the societies in which those dead are being reburied and where statues are erected replacing other monuments. The anthropologist that Verdery is (would "to the bone" be misplaced in this context?) cares little about what political scientists have to say on the phenomenon. It would be wise not to reciprocate. "Political culture" may sound anathema to Verdery (1999, p. 25) who grudgingly accepts "legitimation" as a possible explanation for what is behind these hero-cults, but finds the concept unrewardingly "rationalistic" (1999, pp. 51-52, 126). This book, however, is mostly about the revived revolt against "rationalism." I am not in any way implying that Verdery and most of my "clients" are politically on the same side of the barricade. But incapable as I am of overcoming my subjectivity, I might as well publicly admit it: not only am I an inveterate "rationalist," but I even take pride in being one. Having said that, I can return to, well, the skeleton of my taxonomy.

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