Wind of change blows through the east

Tony Barber sees a resurgence of democracy throughout the region
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Last weekend's election results in Bulgaria and Romania suggest the winds of democratic change are blowing with renewed vigour in the former Communist states of central and eastern Europe

Recent elections in Albania and Bosnia drew heavy criticism from foreign observers for failing to meet acceptable international standards, but the Bulgarian and Romanian polls indicate that peaceful political change achieved by the voters' will is becoming the norm in most parts of the region.

Bulgaria's presidential election produced a convincing victory for the opposition candidate, Petar Stoyanov, over his Socialist (ex-Communist) rival, Ivan Marazov. Although the Socialists have a majority in parliament, where real power resides in Bulgaria, voters sent a clear signal that they did not want the ex-Communists to dominate national politics.

Romania's parliamentary election was the first since the December 1989 revolution to result in a defeat for the remodelled Communists who assumed power after the execution of the Ceausescus. If, as expected, the centrist opposition Democratic Convention forms the core of the next government, it will mark a rare example in 20th-century Romanian history of power being freely and fairly transferred from a ruling party to its rivals.

In those terms, Lithuania's post-Communist progress is more advanced than that of most countries in the region. Power swung after 1992 elections from the anti-Communist opposition to the reformed Communists, known as the Democratic Labour Party (DLP), but last month two conservative parties inflicted electoral defeat on the DLP.

In 1993 and 1994, ex-Communists returned to power after elections in Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria, and Poles last year elected Aleksander Kwasniewski, an ex-Communist, as president. Yet the Polish and Hungarian ex-Communists are keen economic reformers, committed to democracy, and determined to join Nato and the European Union.

The left-of-centre tide appeared to be flowing strongly last June, when Czech voters tilted to the opposition Social Democrats and deprived Vaclav Klaus's centre-right coalition government of its majority. At the time, some commentators regarded the result as the voters' revenge against Mr Klaus's strict free-market doctrines.

Yet the Czech Prime Minister's policies were often more gradualist than his Thatcherite rhetoric implied. This may explain why it took Czechs until this year to register complaints at the market reforms of the post- Communist age, whereas in Poland, where truly radical changes were thrust on the nation in January 1990, the reaction occurred as early as 1993.

In another election last weekend, Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, and his leftist coalition appeared to coast to victory despite the best efforts of a newly united opposition. Mr Milosevic was helped by coverage on state television that praised him as a Balkan peace-maker and played down the opposition's campaign messages.

This year's most flawed elections took place last May in Albania and last September in Bosnia. Albania's ex-Communists, who had won power in 1991 and lost it one year later, boycotted the vote in May after accusing President Sali Berisha's centre-right Democratic Party of trying to fix the result.

The ex-Communists also complained about voting abuses in local elections last month, but international observers gave a much more favourable reaction than in May. The Bosnian elections were plagued by irregularities, including preliminary results that showed a turn-out of more than 100 per cent, but were certified as fair by an international community desperate not to jeopardise the Dayton peace deal.