Communists resurgent in Europe

SUN JOURNAL

Politics: Under varying party names and with Marxist theories updated or watered down, socialism is alive and thriving on the continent.

November 04, 1999|By Lori Montgomery | Lori Montgomery,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- At 21, Sarka Snoblova is old enough to do the sad math of her life. Her monthly salary as a small-town seamstress is $120. Her allergy medicine costs $30. An apartment would cost $150, excluding water, electricity and heat.

"It's impossible to get married now," says Snoblova. She can't even imagine making enough money to move out of her parents' house. "That's why, three years ago, I started voting Communist."

Ten years after the fall of communism, the communists are not gone. Visions of prosperity that once flourished in Central Europe have given way to disillusionment and the realization that corruption and inequality can flourish in a market economy, too. Drastic economic reforms left many behind, creating new and widening gaps between rich and poor.

Political parties founded by leaders and supporters of disgraced Communist regimes are represented in every parliament and hold mayors' offices in hundreds of towns and villages. Stock in many ex-Communist parties is rising across Central Europe.

In Germany, the Party of Democratic Socialism scored stunning victories against Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democratic Party in recent state elections. In Poland, the formerly communist Democratic Left Alliance, known by its Polish acronym SLD, not only holds the presidency but also hopes to stage a comeback in parliament.

Nowhere is the pro-communist surge more striking than in the Czech Republic, home of the Velvet Revolution and dissident President Vaclav Havel. Buoyed by voters such as Snoblova who are disillusioned by low wages, few jobs and a rising cost of living, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia claims the support of one in five Czechs, polls show. It may soon be the nation's most popular party.

These, however, are not your father's Communist parties. In most nations, the ex-communists are socialists who water down their Marxist theory with a draught of open markets. Apologetic about "mistakes" of the past, they try to temper the ravages of capitalism by maintaining the social safety net and guaranteeing jobs.

In Germany, no leader from the Party of Democratic Socialism held high office in the Communist Party of the old German Democratic Republic.

"We of course understand that the GDR has been defeated," says Michael Benjamin, the head of the PDS's communist platform.

Poland's SLD isn't even socialist. Many Poles and Wall Street analysts consider the SLD a more reliable steward of free-market reforms than the anti-communist -- but trade-union dependent -- Solidarity Electoral Action.

In the Czech Republic, on the other hand, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia hasn't even changed its name.

"This is a total neo-Stalinist party, and they make no bones about it," says Jiri Pehe, a former dissident and Havel adviser who now heads the Prague campus of New York University. "If the Communist Party is the most popular party in the country, it should send shivers down anyone's spine."

At a rally to celebrate Miners' Day, a communist-era holiday, a crowd of about 500 fills the town square and lines the streets of Pribram, a former mining center where all the mines have closed, to hear Communist Party chief Miroslav Grebenicek denounce the Czech government.

"The conditions for honest life for simple people have been worsening and worsening. We're disgusted with 10 years of empty promises," thunders Grebenicek, whose party opposes membership in NATO and the European Union and supports a planned state economy with guaranteed employment.

"Every worker, every farmer, every citizen who works honestly and hard is more useful to his country than all the so-called market economists who steal our money," Grebenicek says. "Social rights are also part of human rights. Despite anti-communist rhetoric, the Communist Party provided social rights for everyone, not just the rich."

Afterward, a throng of autograph-seekers corners Grebenicek under a linden tree. A short man with a shock of white hair bursts from their ranks.

"I've never voted Communist before, but what you said is 101 percent true," the man says, pumping Grebenicek's hand.

On the strength of such appeals, the party claims four of 81 seats in the Czech Senate and 24 of 200 seats in parliament. Its 143,000 dues-paying members contribute 0.5 percent of their earnings. Thousands more, says party Deputy Chairman Vaclav Exner, are "collaborators and sympathizers."

But didn't the world reject communism? Not according to the new communists.

"By pure Marxist theory, nobody has achieved communism yet," says Exner, who keeps a large bust of Lenin in his office in downtown Prague. "I consider it a nonsense statement when somebody says communism was destroyed."

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