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Eastern Europe: Analysis From Washington -- When Communists Win Elections

Washington, 1 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The impressive showing of communist party candidates in the Ukrainian and Moldovan parliamentary elections has led some observers to make apocalyptic predictions about the future of these countries.

The day after the Ukrainian vote, one Kyiv newspaper asked in a headline whether the results constituted a new "red dawn." And other commentators suggested that the vote for the communists meant a return to the past and a reorientation toward Moscow.

But both an examination of the actual returns in these countries and a consideration of what has actually happened in these elections suggests that their future is not likely to proceed in either of these directions, let alone both.

On March 23, the communist party in Moldova received 30 percent of the vote, far more than any other party but also far less than a majority in the parliament.

Not surprisingly in such a situation, the party's leader Vladimir Voronin indicated that the communist deputies would seek to form a coalition with the country's main centrist bloc and would not demand that a communist be named prime minister.

And while Voronin said that his party would seek to promote the economic "rebirth" of the country, he also said that the Moldovan communists would not oppose privatization, a key part of the reformist program.

Then on March 29, the communist party in Ukraine received approximately one vote in four, giving it 25 percent of the 225 seats allocated by party list, far more than any other political party in this election.

But the communists triumphed in fewer than 40 of the 225 parliamentary seats chosen in single-member districts and thus will be forced to seek allies among other parties if they hope to participate in the government or determine policy outcomes.

More to the point, in both countries, there are three important reasons to think that this increase in the vote for communist parliamentarians does not presage a return to the past either domestically or internationally.

First, in both countries, the communists won their position in competitive elections rather than through the use of revolutionary methods. As such, these communist parties are far more like leftist parties in Europe than like their Bolshevik predecessors.

They have had to make promises to voters. They have not won a majority that would allow them to run roughshod over others. And they are forced to seek coalitions to be effective.

Second, and again in both countries, the communists won as the result of a protest vote by those who have suffered as a result of the social and economic dislocations of the past decade.

As one of the more thoughtful Ukrainian newspapers put it yesterday, "Ukraine voted in protest -- not for the Greens or other colors of the spectrum but against the way we are living."

Pensioners and many workers there have not been paid for months. Many people are suffering from the decline in public services. And still more are frightened about what will happen next.

Not surprisingly, they voted for communist candidates who promised to ease their situation. If those making promises cannot keep them any better than those they defeated, they too will lose at the next election.

And third, the vote for the communists was not necessarily a vote for closer ties with Moscow, let alone a return to some kind of revived Soviet Union.

While some people in both countries may have voted communist out of a misplaced nostalgia for the past, most voted the way they did out of domestic considerations rather than foreign policy calculations.

And while some communist candidates did promise to improve ties with Moscow, even they spoke out in favor of strengthening the national governments they hoped to be elected to.

Indeed, precisely because of the legacy of the past, many of the communists adopted campaign rhetoric as nationalist as any of the other candidates.

To say all this is not to welcome the votes for the communists in either Moldova or Ukraine. On the one hand, the vote for the communists represents a repudiation at least for a time of those who have sought to promote democracy and free markets.

And on the other, communist deputies in both countries are likely to be able to block or at least water down further efforts toward these two goals.

But rather it is to suggest that this pattern of voting may be part of the birth pangs of a democratic system in Moldova and Ukraine instead of its death knell as some fear.