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Armenia: Analysis From Washington -- Nostalgia Politics Poses A Challenge To Post Communist Countries

Washington, 11 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The lead former Armenian communist party chief Karen Demirchyan appears to enjoy in the presidential polls there is the latest example of the politics of nostalgia in the post-communist countries.

Like people everywhere, politicians in this region are often able to exploit the selective memory of electorates, the tendency of many people to remember the "good old days" especially when times are tough and to forget the "bad old nights" that often accompanied them.

But if this near universal tendency is understandable, it carries with it three serious challenges in the case of post-communist countries.

First, by exploiting the image of a past that never was, such politicians only increase the difficulties people have first in confronting the past and then in overcoming it.

No one would deny that conditions are difficult today for the population of Armenia and her neighbors. Not only have they suffered as a result of the dislocations brought about by the collapse of the old system, but in the Caucasus, they have suffered as well from the burdens arising from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

But if life is anything but good now, it was not wonderful when the old communist leadership was in power. Not only were there serious economic problems at that time, but there were also even more serious restrictions on personal freedom.

If that had not been the case, there would not have been the pressure for change that ultimately contributed to the overthrow of the communist dictatorship. Indeed, even those who may have been better off materially a decade ago were not nearly so well off as they may imagine or as leaders indulging in the politics of nostalgia often suggest.

Second, by using the politics of nostalgia, such politicians generally are able to avoid having to articulate a specific program.

That is especially true in post-communist countries where former communist leaders routinely describe themselves as born-again capitalists and democrats and thus appear worthy of support on that basis.

But in all too many cases -- and Armenia may be one of them -- such leaders from the past appear to be gaining support not because of what they claim to be now but because of what the country was like before they transformed themselves into something new.

And such leaders often contribute to that tendency by failing to articulate a specific program, saying only as Demirchyan does that they will "work" for the people. That lack of self-definition carries with it the danger that their policies could go in almost any direction if and when they take office.

And third, the politics of nostalgia in the post-communist states presents a very serious challenge to Western governments and peoples to fashion expanded aid packages to help the peoples of this region make the difficult transitions to democracy and free markets that will ultimately benefit them.

The difficulties of making the transition from communist dictatorship and socialist economics to democracy and free markets are real. In many places across this region, whole classes of people -- pensioners, refugees, and others not yet benefiting from the market --are suffering. Not surprisingly, many of them are looking for a way out of their current dilemma by turning to those who promise a return to the certainties of the past.

Some observers both in the region and further afield have argued that there is no escape from such suffering if these countries are to make the transitions that they and we want and to comfort themselves with the notion that the transitions in these countries are now "irreversible."

But even if the latter is true -- and often it represents a standard so low that it has little meaning at all -- people in these countries just like those in established democracies are likely to vote in ways that reflect both their current situations and their hopes for the future.

To the extent that outside assistance can help the peoples of this region to see that they are likely to benefit by working through their current difficulties rather than turning away from them to the past, everyone involved -- both the peoples of this region and those providing assistance -- will thus avoid falling victim to the politics of nostalgia.