Thursday, November 15, 2007

europe.view column

Europe.view

People power
Nov 15th 2007
From Economist.com


Ex-communist politicians now face demanding voters


THE gloomy story of east European politics goes like this. Politicians are out of touch and voters don’t care; outside pressure can be safely ignored; reform stalls or goes backwards. That certainly has seemed the case in many new member states of the European Union, and in countries queuing to join. It looks like the story of Georgia now.

But the real trend may be a different one: voters are increasingly impatient with inept, heavy-handed or corrupt governments. Last month Polish voters threw out the brusque and incompetent Law and Justice party, overturning their own reputation for cynicism and apathy in the process.

Supposedly passive Latvians have successfully defended one of the country’s strongest independent institutions, an anti-corruption agency known by the acronym KNAB (which stands for Corruption Prevention and Combating bureau). The business-friendly coalition government of Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis had tried to sack KNAB’s director, Aleksejs Loskutovs, ostensibly because of trivial book-keeping irregularities. The real reason seems to be KNAB’s success in investigating campaign-finance abuses that it says involve Mr Kalvitis’s party.

Mr Kalvitis’s pressure prompted the largest demonstrations since the dying days of the Soviet Union. A recent one was joined, rather unusually, by the country’s president, Valdis Zatlers, who said that the government should resign soon.

Now Mr Kalvitis says he will stand down, and has backtracked on the suspension of Mr Loskutovs. Whatever the outcome, the days when Latvian politics was stitched up by a handful of tycoons, each with a political party in his pocket, seem to be over.

Though the crackdown in Georgia reflects dismally disappointing misjudgment at the highest level, the story behind it is rather more encouraging. The opposition demonstrations of the past weeks may have been in part financed and stoked by outsiders, and they sometimes sounded hysterical and silly—demanding the return of the monarchy, for example.

But some of the grievances expressed were real. The gains of the economic boom did indeed seem to be too narrowly shared. The highest reaches of officialdom seemed to have developed a culture of impunity. It would have been truly worrying if Mikheil Saakashvili’s personal popularity and grip on power meant that nobody was bothered that some things were going wrong, and it is a sign of Georgia’s deepening civic culture that its citizens chose to do something about it.

Similarly, the protests against the state of emergency now reflect commendable public concern, which the West should endorse, not ignore. In Georgia and Ukraine alike, the real legacy of revolutions against corrupt authoritarian rule is not the immediate flowers, which soon wither, but the way that the democratic sub-soil is enriched and deepened. Nothing like this was visible in the dim days of Mr Saakashvili’s predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze. His ability to buy off and sideline any putative opposition was a depressing feature of Georgia’s underdeveloped democracy.

Biffing governments is one thing. Providing alternatives is another. Georgia’s opposition does not look like a credible potential government. Its destiny for now may be to stimulate better behaviour by the authorities, not to take power itself.

Latvia’s opposition consists of a freemarket party led by the eccentric Einars Repse (nicknamed “Martian”) and a pro-Russian grouping seen by many Latvians as little more than a Kremlin puppet. In Poland, it is too early to tell whether the Civic Platform government will show real vision, competence and integrity, or founder like its predecessor.

The role of money is still the most worrying question. How can poor countries’ political systems stay open and fair when some of the players are billionaires? As western Europe’s failure to stand up to Kremlin lures shows, maintaining honesty and public-spiritedness in the face of huge bribes is a hard task.

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