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Postscript : Communists Find Life as Born-Again Bureaucrats

August 24, 1993|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — An old Communist dies, and God and Satan argue over whether he should be redeemed. At last they agree to send the Communist for two weeks in hell, then two weeks in heaven, before deciding where he belongs.

Two weeks later, God comes out to the Pearly Gates and sees the devil has come alone.

' 'Where's the Communist?" asks God.

' 'He likes it where he is, he's staying with me," says the devil.

"A deal is a deal," thunders God. "Hand him over, you devil!"

"That's 'Comrade Devil' to you," retorts the fiend. "And anyway, there is no God."

*

Communism as an ideology deemed potent enough to convert the devil died long before the Soviet Union. But the Communist Party remained the world's largest organization for training political thinkers, economists, managers and leaders--and then placing them in command of a nation of 290 million.

Two years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the roughly 600,000 remaining Communist Party members are viewed here as extremists. But with few exceptions, the one-sixth of the world's land mass that was the Soviet Union is still controlled by the 19 million influential alumni of the Soviet Communist Party.

Unlike most of Eastern Europe, where dissidents became presidents and swept away or even jailed the old guard, most of the Communist officials in the former Soviet Union still have their old jobs.

Their ranks include radical converted democrats such as Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin. But they also include armies of apparatchiks who were trained to command and control, not to liberate and deregulate. Rather than ideology, most of these functionaries are motivated by the desire to cling to the privileges and the power they gained from managing the state-run economy.

"They are obstructing the reforms right now," said Igor A. Kharichev, a Yeltsin administration deputy chief of staff. "There is sabotage within the bureaucracy."

Of the 15 former Soviet republics, 10 are run by high-ranking former Communist officials. Five of them once served in the Soviet Politburo.

Only three of the new leaders, Presidents Lennart Meri of Estonia, Levon Ter-Petrosyan of Armenia and Guntis Ulmanis of Latvia, never joined the Communist Party.

"The Communists never left the political arena," said Constantine V. Pleshakov, a historian at Moscow's prestigious Institute for the U.S.A. and Canada. "The former party apparatchiks are the most experienced administrators in this country. . .," Pleshakov added. "The so-called democrats have proved to be politically impotent."

In fact, since independence, three leaders with dissident credentials who had risen to power on a nationalist brand of anti-communism have been ousted and replaced by their republics' old Communist Party bosses.

Vytautas Z. Landsbergis, the music professor who led Lithuania to independence, lost his luster in 1992 when he presided over a 61% drop in the gross national product. In hopes that someone with more experience could make the economic train run on time, Lithuanians in February elected former Communist Party First Secretary Algirdas Brazauskas as president.

In Azerbaijan, the first democratically elected president, former dissident and scholar Abulfez Elchibey, came to be widely seen as a political weakling and an economic incompetent. Elchibey was also blamed for humiliating military losses in Azerbaijan's five-year war against the Armenians. He fled the capital during a coup in June and was replaced by an old-style Communist, Geidar Aliyev, 70.

Like Aliyev, Georgian President Eduard A. Shevardnadze, 65, had a classic Communist Party career that included a stint heading the local KGB. Like Aliyev, he also served in the Soviet Politburo, took over from discredited former dissidents and is trying to rescue a nation wounded by war and economic chaos.

But Brazauskas, Aliyev and Shevardnadze are turning out to be as different as Karl Marx, Adam Smith and Ronald Reagan.

Brazauskas has been described as a "closet social democrat." He was the first regional Communist leader to chart an independent course from Moscow, a man who tolerated--perhaps even respected--his opposition. He has declared full support for privatization of Lithuanian state property and for sweeping economic reform.

Aliyev, by contrast, was kicked out of the Politburo of former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev for opposing economic reform, or perestroika. Polls show him to be the most popular politician in Azerbaijan. But human rights activists say his short tenure has already been marked by press censorship and beatings of political opponents.

Shevardnadze, foreign minister under Gorbachev, was credited with helping to end the Cold War. Now his diplomatic skills are consumed with trying to end Georgia's civil war.

The vast differences among these three men show the dangers of categorizing the "old Commies" who are now being accused of trying to curb new freedoms and thwart free-market reforms.

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