The Communist old guard that once ruled the Soviet Union and its eastern European satellites is still a formidable political force, writes Joseph Poprzeczny.
American-based British columnist and former special adviser to British Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, John O’Sullivan, has presented an insightful explanation for the ongoing influence of communists within democratising former Soviet states.
Even the Poles, despite their unique Solidarity movement’s success in toppling the Stalinist empire, have still been unable to entirely eradicate communist power within their country.
And if the Poles haven’t succeeded, then what chance would other former Soviet satellites have of gaining freedom?
In Ukraine and Russia the challenge to the Communist old guard must be judged as being a formidable, perhaps even futile, task.
O’Sullivan visited Poland just before last year’s election saw the then Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s conservative government defeated by the more free-market-leaning Donald Tusk, now Prime Minister.
According to O’Sullivan, in order to understand the arduous democratising path confronting many eastern European nations, it is necessary to know that, before communism’s so-called collapse, members of communist parties transformed themselves into capitalists and also reinvigorated their links with certain Moscow-based agencies.
This means that, irrespective of who holds elected political office in Poland, the former communist nomenklatura (power elite) that emerged during its years of power from 1945 until 1989 has largely retained commercial or economic powers.
“The political spectrum in Poland is quite unlike the usual tug-of-war between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in most of Europe,” O’Sullivan says. “The last  election virtually eliminated the post-Communist Left parties in parliament even though (or maybe because) they had been governing Poland for the previous four years. They [the Communists] have now gathered together in an electoral coalition under the leadership of the popular former president, Alexander Kwasniecki, but it is scoring only 14-percent in the polls. That shifts the entire political spectrum to the Right.”
O’Sullivan says Poland’s 2007 election was therefore a battle between two essentially rightist parties – the Tusk-led Civic Platform and the Kaczynski-led Law and Justice Party.
“But what exactly is the difference between them?” O’Sullivan asks.
“I have been testing possible explanations with my various interviewers. Is it a conflict between rural conservatives and urban liberals? Or between secular-minded conservatives and religious ones? Or between the Polish equivalents of Main Street and Wall Street? Or a modern version of the division between Whigs and Tories?”
“My interlocutors generally responded with Isaiah Berlin’s famous rejoinder: ‘Well, there’s something in that, but not much.’ Law and Justice is perhaps more populist, the Civic Platform more business-minded, the former slightly more Euro-sceptic, the latter a little more Europhile.
“But there isn’t a great deal of difference on actual policies, they go on to say. After all, both parties have emerged from different wings of the Solidarity movement.”
O’Sullivan says one Polish journalist who interviewed him about his best-selling book, The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World, suggested that “the real difference is over how each party intends to deal with ‘the network’.”
“The network” – what network? According to O’Sullivan, observant Poles are certain a “network” exists and that it has real sway over and above normal political processes.
“This is the widely-suspected set of links between former Communists, Soviet-era intelligence networks, business oligarchs who benefited from corrupt privatisations, and the old KGB now reviving in Putin’s Russia under the acronym of FSB,” O’Sullivan says.
“This shadowy ‘network’ is widely believed to be influential on a range of political matters, especially the all-important question of energy security, and largely outside democratic control.
“Even if this fear is exaggerated, it rests on something real in Polish life. Because the transition from Communism to democracy was a negotiated one, the Communists protected their futures in various ways. Social ‘peace’ was put before justice.
“No torturers went to prison; instead they receive state pensions. Communist apparatchiks mutated smoothly into ‘businessmen’ and social democrats. Some are prominent in politics, the media and public life. There has never been a reckoning for the 40 years of Communist oppression.
“Poles see their old oppressors still seemingly powerful and well-connected, even out of power. It digs a deep well of legitimate resentment throughout society. People want to see justice done.” To O’Sullivan the difference between Civic Platform and Law and Justice is found here – with the latter far more determined and likely than the former “to uncover the Communist past and to challenge the network”.
He said Law and Justice wanted a reckoning to be brought on, and former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his twin brother and Poland’s President, Lech Kaczynski, wished to have files opened to the public from the Communist era with disclosure on those who informed to the intelligence services.
Those files, O’Sullivan stresses, even included names and details of some priests who had been close to the future Pope John Paul II, he said.
Clandestine penetration of the Catholic Church was always a priority cause for the Communists since they realised that, in one way or another, it was the likely dissenting centre that could topple the Communist order. Interestingly, Poland’s constitutional court has halted the file opening process.
“Any challenge to the network will have to be clever as well as tough if it is to succeed against such a crafty adversary,” says O’Sullivan. “But even voters dubious about the twins on other issues know that they really want to end the network’s influence.” (National Review, October 9, 2007).
However, with Law and Justice having lost last year’s election to Tusk’s Civic Platform, this uncovering has either been delayed or put aside indefinitely, which may mean many decades to come. This ensures the network and the descendents of its members retain real power in the foreseeable future.
Similar outcomes have been witnessed in other former Soviet satellites. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Moscow has reasserted itself and gained control of the oil and gas sector, which has meant a new weapon is in the hands of those wishing to exert power over energy-dependent former eastern European satellites and eventually even over western Europe.
Nor is the situation in China markedly different. Well over 95 per cent of China’s new generation of so-called capitalists are friends or relatives of key party personnel. So-called capitalism has consequently become an arm of revamped Communism, rather than forming the basis of a truly democratic order.
What this means is that this new super-wealthy class are really crony-capitalists who owe their wealth more to the state and the Communist Party rather than to their own aptitudes and native skills.
However, this has enriched the Communist parties of these states to the point where they are using their accumulated revenues to create sovereign welfare funds (SWFs) to acquire Western-owned corporations, including Australian companies.
In light of O’Sullivan’s findings, we ought completely to re-evaluate our earlier assumption that the Communists lost the Cold War.
In many cases, they simply transformed themselves chameleon-like into capitalists so as to ensure that they continued enjoying the privileges and lifestyle they had grown accustomed to under Communism.
– Joseph Poprzeczny is a Perth-based freelance journalist and historian.