Policy Analysis No. 255

Red Phoenix Rising? Dealing with the Communist Resurgence in Eastern Europe

By Roger Fontaine
June 13, 1996

Executive Summary

The communist specter is making a reappearance in Central and Eastern Europe. In some cases, as in Belarus, the old communist establishment never left power. In other Soviet bloc nations, such as Lithuania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Poland, the communists have returned to power. Most important is the Russian Federation, where a regrouped Communist Party under new leadership made dramatic gains in the December 1995 parliamentary elections and is positioned to make a strong showing in the upcoming presidential elections. Only in the Czech Republic, Latvia, and Estonia have communists, former communists, and statist-minded bureaucrats been eclipsed.

The explanation of the communist renaissance and its implications for the West are neither simple nor one-dimensional. Despite alarm in some quarters, we are not returning to 1917 or 1945. But the earlier hopes for a smooth transition from Marxist police state to democratic capitalism have proved premature, indeed, naive.

Three important lessons need to be absorbed. First, the nations, such as the Czech Republic and Estonia, that have pursued the most rapid and radical economic reform programs have been the least vulnerable to a neocommunist backlash. Timidity and gradualism in other countries have proven counterproductive. Second, most of the resurgent “communist” parties have little desire or ability to restore dictatorships or seek a confrontation with the West. There is, therefore, no need for Washington to panic and institute a Cold War-style containment policy. Finally, although America cannot dictate political and economic outcomes in Central and Eastern Europe, it ought to encourage reform and discourage retrograde trends by refusing to bail out anti-reform regimes with foreign aid.

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Roger W. Fontaine, a Washington-based writer, was a senior staff officer with the National Security Council during the Reagan administration.