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23 October, 2014  ▪  Olha Vorozhbyt

The Red Thaw in Eastern Europe

After 1989, East European Communists transformed into social-democrats. Those who survived lustration remained in politics at home through the 1990s and early 2000s

Photo: During a meeting with Petro Symonenko, the leader of the Communist Party of Ukraine (left), in August, Gregor Gysi stated that the German Left will provide their lawyer to the Ukrainian Communist Party

Gregor Gysi’s speeches in the Bundestag regarding Ukraine are always a well-selected set of theses in defence of Vladimir Putin and the current position of Russia. This German politician is a lawyer by profession. Close your eyes for an instant when listening to him, and you will feel as if you are in court hearing the counsel for the defence. With equal fervour, Gysi, the last leader of the GDR’s leading Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), stood for the existence of his political force, and this is probably one of the reasons why he succeeded in transforming it into the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) first, then The Left party, as we know it in the current German parliament.

However, both today, when his party members only won 11.9% support in the last election, and after the fall of the Berlin wall and the first free democratic election in East Germany, former Communists immediately ended up in the caste of parties with little influence. An important factor that contributed to this was the significant involvement of West Germany in the political process of that time, which helped to quickly establish a new party system where the centre-right gained a majority under the careful but important support of the “father” of German unity, Helmut Kohl.

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As Daniel Ziblatt, a professor at Harvard University, noted in one of his studies, a significant role in the marginalisation of Communists was also played by the West German media: they watched the newly-created party of the former regime representatives very closely, with a grain of suspicion. This differentiated German Communists, for example, from the Polish ones, who found a way to fill the Social Democratic niche. German Communists found it difficult to accomplish the same thing at home because the West Germany centre-left held solid and influential positions there. After the 1994 election, when questioned about whether he viewed Gysi’s party in his coalition with Social Democrats, Co-Chairman of the Green Party, Joschka Fischer, stated that he saw his political force either with the Social Democrats or in the opposition, but did not intend to depend on Gysi’s party. The centre-right Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, called East German Communists “fascists painted red”, and in publications in the early 1990s, there were discussions on whether it was at all possible to trust the newly-established PDS as the successor of East German Communism.

Many politicians, who were members of the Communist Parties of the former Soviet Bloc, such as Gysi, remain in the politics at home, but not as actively. Elsewhere, such as in Poland and Hungary, their forces were not marginalised, but transformed into powerful social democratic movements, which after the disillusionment in the first elections following 1989, often played a leading role in the country. Their representatives became presidents or prime ministers. However, there is another distinctive sign, which differentiates the successors of the Communist Parties in Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic from their German colleagues: in spite of everything, national interest was of paramount importance to them.

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“Communism was a kind of freezer… The defrosting process was conducted gradually: first of all, we saw wonderful flowers; then – mud and nasty scum,” wrote Polish publicist Adam Michnik, clearly referring to the early 1990s. It is this second layer of “defrosting” that brought to the surface new unexpected results and social movements, and at the same time, reinstated some former politicians to the position of statesmen.

“Polish leftists on the background of leftist parties in West European countries, for example, France, are significantly more rightist. If you compare the Communist Party of France to the Polish Democratic Left Alliance, the direct successor of the Polish United Workers' Party, the latter is ideologically more rightist,” – says Pawel Fleischer, a Polish researcher.

The history of Polish Communists after 1989 is a great example of how the party transferred to the social democratic wing, as well as of a “pendulum effect” – when the main official positions have long been in the hands of former party officials. For instance, President Lech Walesa was succeeded by Aleksander Kwasniewski, the Minister for Youth Affairs in the Polish People’s Republic. The need for qualified statesmen was the factor partly responsible for this. West Germany provided such personnel to East Germany, but in the case of Poland the involvement of ex-Communist officials was not unjustified.

The gravitation of Polish leftist parties and former Communists to the right (in spite of their traditional rhetoric, the maintenance of national interests) helped leftists with ideas to avoid such discrediting, as seen in Ukraine.

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In Hungary, just as in Poland, there was a transformation of what was the leading party prior to 1989. However, if in Poland and Germany it seemed quite harsh, Hungary had it gradually, although party members themselves played an important role in it. Politicians Károly Grósz and Imre Pozsgay strived to rid the party of its “Goulash Communist center”, which brought along liberalisation. Just as in other East European countries, the first democratic election was won by the Hungarian Democratic Forum, which was not tainted with Communism. However, the subsequent disillusion brought reformed Communists to power in the Hungarian Socialist Party.

In 2009, the Czech Václav Havel confirmed that it would take decades to overcome the deep wounds suffered by the European society that had already survived the horrors of Communism. It is important, that the Czech Republic became the first East Bloc country in which the Communist Party played a dominant role prior to 1989 but was recognised as being a criminal organisation and the regime itself - illegal. In the latest general elections, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia created in 1989 landed third, and this is extremely painful for country of Havel. Although party members asked forgiveness for the actions of their predecessors and do not consider themselves to be their successors, it is the nostalgia for the Communist past, clearly, that brought it this result.

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Today, the successors of the Communist Party in the parliaments of Eastern Europe hold positions that are not particularly influential (with the possible exception of the Czech Republic). The politicians that were members of these political forces one way or another prior to 1989 are gradually leaving the political arena because of their age and demand of society. It is important for lustration to eliminate those who are guilty of Communist crimes. In most countries, Communists transferred to the social democratic field, a more familiar policy for Europe. This is evidence that by taking on the ideology imposed on them by the USSR, they still stuck to the national interests of their countries. However, the current war in Ukraine has revealed issues that are common for many former Communists from Eastern Europe: fear and at the same time love for Russia and its leader. German Gregor Gysi talks about Fascists in the Ukrainian government. Czech Vojtěch Filip of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia reportedly says that “Ukraine is a Neo-Nazi country” now. This syndrome will continue for many years to come and no one knows how to cure it
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