They're all ex-Communists now: The West is worried about the return of the nomenklatura: no need, says Imre Karacs

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YET ANOTHER domino has fallen in the political landscape of Eastern Europe. After the triumphs of the former Communists in Lithuania and Poland, Hungary has now succumbed to the same trend: Sunday's election saw the once-spurned left sweep to victory, while the main party in the governing centre-right coalition, the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), received a miserable 12 per cent of the vote.

All this may seem depressingly familiar. From Vilnius to East Berlin, people in the former Soviet satellite states appear to be hoisting their former jailers back into power. It is as if the region has been gripped by a communal amnesia: voters seem to be reaching out to an infantile memory of stable prices and steady employment, oblivious to the downside of their recent history: the five-year plan, May Day parades and the gulag.

The electoral defeats of anti-Communist forces in Lithuania, Poland and now Hungary - and the entrenchment of unreconstructed Communists or Communists- turned-nationalists everywhere else in Central Europe except in the Czech Republic - seem to offer conclusive proof that the east of the continent is sliding into a moral and political morass. At the same time, the gap between the two halves of Europe seems to grow ever wider, with the West sticking to or lurching towards the centre- right, and the East falling off the scale at the opposite end.

The image of this continental rift is captivating, but it is misleading. The economic programme of the Hungarian Socialist Party could, without much modification, slot into Silvio Berlusconi's manifesto: privatisation, improved trade performance, a balanced budget. The main difference is that Mr Berlusconi promised jam tomorrow, while Hungary's victors told the voters not to expect any real improvement for two years. In foreign policy, Budapest's new masters are as committed to European integration as their predecessors were. The prime minister's first foreign trip will be to Bonn, not Moscow.

In Poland and Lithuania, the so-called former Communists have already proved that they represent continuity with those in the old regime - not the Communists, but those who deliberately set about destroying Communism from the inside in the Eighties. Hungary's Socialists have an equally impressive record. It was they who negotiated the withdrawal of Soviet troops, tore down the Iron Curtain and, by allowing an escape route for disaffected East Germans, blew a hole into the Berlin Wall. Western observers may be worried about the return of the old nomenklatura, but a large number of voters grown dissatisfied with conservative governments in Lithuania, Poland and Hungary decided they had nothing to fear.

In Lithuania's elections in the autumn of 1992 the voters rejected not a radical new course, but an administration formed by the nationalist Sajudis party, which had proved itself incapable of filling the shops or making peace with the country's neighbours. When Sajudis was elected, national identity took precedence; this time the government was judged on its economic performance.

In Poland, the governing five-party coalition, which was toppled last September, had filled the shops, kept the budget deficit in check and even produced the post-communist world's first green shoots of recovery, yet it failed to stem the tide of discontent. Splits within the government did not help, and its close association with strident Catholic causes, especially a draconian abortion law, helped persuade Poles that they had merely swapped one form of dogmatism for another. The Communists were returned to power.

In Hungary, the government led by the MDF committed all the mistakes of like-minded administrations in Warsaw and Vilnius. When it came to power four years ago, the MDF inherited the highest per capita debt in Eastern Europe, but also - thanks to persistent Communist attempts to escape the Soviet orbit - the most market- friendly economy. Four years later, though, its stock exchange remains embryonic as bourses in Prague and Warsaw blossom. Legions of Arthur Daleys ply their trade in Budapest, generating huge wealth but minuscule tax revenue. The foreign trade balance has dipped sharply below zero, and the budget deficit has ballooned. Although the country has had the largest influx of foreign capital since the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe - an estimated dollars 7bn since 1990 - its population has fallen behind the Czech Republic and the former basket case of Poland in the race to prosperity. Unemployment stands at 12 per cent - though many on the dole are working in the bulging black economy - and inflation towers above 20 per cent. In this context, the Socialists are seen as competent economists mercifully free of ideological baggage.

Much of the disenchantment with the Hungarian government can be put down to the impoverishment of a large section of the population, but not all of it. The fury that Hungarians vented on their government stemmed from the hangover of shattered dreams, fuelled by an acute sense of betrayal. In 1990 they - like other Central Europeans - voted for the end of 'isms'. If nostalgia ever held sway in Central Europe, it was in those halcyon days when, in the void left by the crumbling Communist ideology, an idyllic, dogma- free, pre-war world seemed to beckon. In Hungary the conservative coalition registered exactly the same level of support as its predecessor in 1945: 57 per cent, and there were many throughout the region who thought that their countries' natural development would continue from where it was interrupted at the end of the Second World War.

Few heeded warnings that the patriotism which was the driving force of the revolutions of 1989 could degenerate into something more sinister. In Lithuania Sajudis turned the screws on the Polish minority; in Poland virulent Catholicism took on an intolerant face. In Hungary the spotlight turned on to the Jewish intelligentsia who were represented disproportionately in the leadership of the MDF's main rivals, the Alliance of Free Democrats. By the end of its reign the MDF had claimed exclusive guardianship of Hungary's democratic tradition, and even in defeat it failed to understand that its vision of an absolute right to govern was not shared by the population. The ultra-nationalist wing who had broken away from the MDF in mid-term fared even worse, failing to get a single seat in the new parliament. The other extreme, the unreconstructed Communists who obtained just over 3 per cent, also remain excluded. The 'Jewish' Free Democrats, on the other hand, came a strong second and may join the Socialists in government.

If there is any strong trend to be discerned from the elections it is the strong repudiation of demagoguery of all stripes. The charismatic politicians who rode the crest of the nationalist wave two years ago - and are still riding it in the more mature democracies of Italy and France - have fallen from favour. The Communists, for their part, equipped with a new name, and new centrist policies, must submit themselves to the same tests of government - the economic, social and cultural health of their voters - that their predecessors failed. They have been democratically elected, and are quite likely to be thrown out just as democratically.

Central Europe has exulted in the fervour of post-Communist nationalism, it has wallowed in the mud, reached the bottom and is now coming up for fresh air. This gives rise to a tentative hope that the Balkans and the rest of the post-Soviet world, now mired in authoritarianism and xenophobia, may also one day emerge into the sunlight.

The book review returns tomorrow.

(Photographs omitted)