Spun off an earlier post.
Remember the first generation of post-Communist leaders? The guys who took power immediately after Communism collapsed? Well, here’s a question: almost 20 years later, how many of them are still running things?
Not so many. A fair number of them are dead: Croatia’s Tudjman, Bosnia’s Izetbegovic, Hungary’s Jozsef Antall, Russia’s Yeltsin. Some are too old to do much — Romania’s Iliescu, Hungary’s Arpad Goncz. A few have retired from politics — Bulgaria’s Zhelev and Dimitrov. And quite a few are still alive, and active in politics, but will never reach positions of real power again.
— I should clarify my definitions here. I’m looking only at the top guys (they’re all guys). Presidents or other heads of state, Prime Ministers or other heads of government, or those who held equivalent levels of executive power. So, to qualify, you must have been President or PM in the first post-Communist government, and still be President or PM today.
So who qualifies? It’s a short list, but interesting.
1) Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan. President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been running Kazakhstan without a break since 1991. He’s never received less than 90% of the vote in any election. His party has all the seats in Parliament. The Kazakhstani Constitution was amended to let him run as many times as he wants to, so he’ll probably be around for a while yet.
He’s a dictator, sure. But that’s the norm for the region. All of the USSR’s Central Asian republics turned into dictatorships after 1991, with varying degrees of oppression and squalidness. (See Tajikistan, below.) What’s not widely appreciated is that this is because they were already more or less dictatorships before 1991. The ‘stans were much more authoritarian than Russia, never mind the Baltic States; they had no democratic tradition whatsoever, and were run by local party bosses as personal fiefdoms. Moscow’s writ was already weakening by the early 1980s: the guys who really ran things — usually the Secretary of the republic Communist Party– spent more time worrying about local rivals than about the commands of the distant “center”. One of the least-acknowledged milestones in the collapse of the USSR came in 1986, when Gorbachev’s attempt to appoint a non-Kazakh to be First Secretary of the Kazakh Communist Party led to days of rioting. Nazarbayev used this to climb to power, taking over in 1989.
Anyway: Nazarbayev is corrupt and authoritarian, but — given that we’re in Central Asia — he could have been worse. He’s not crazy or pointlessly brutal. Under his rule Kazakhstan has avoided civil war and chaos, and has enjoyed rapid economic growth (driven by petroleum exports, to be sure). He’s even allowed Kazakhstan to develop a rudimentary civil society.
2) Karimov of Uzbekistan. Islam Karimov is basically a nastier Nazarbayev. Like Nazarbayev, he’s the guy who just happened to be First Secretary of the local Communist party when the USSR collapsed. Unlike Nazarbayev, he doesn’t even pretend to hold competitive elections; all his rival “candidates” are vetted by his party, and spend their campaigns praising his honesty and wisdom. Under his rule Uzbekistan has become notorious for extreme human rights abuses and the total eradication of opposition.
There’s not much else to say about Karimov, except this: Karimov is getting old (71) while his country is young (average age 23) and growing (TFR 2.9, growth rate 1.7% pa). When he goes, expect trouble.
3) Milo Djukanovic of Montenegro.
Now, Djukanovic is authentically interesting. He came to power as one of a triumvirate running Montenegro in 1988 — at the age of 26 — and became Prime Minister for the first time in 1991, when he was not yet 30. Since then he’s been Prime Minister (1991-8), President (1998-2002), Prime Minister again (2002-6), briefly “retired from politics”, and then Prime Minister yet again (January 2008-present).
Djukanovic’s career has had oh, so many twists and turns. He started as a democratic, “anti-bureaucratic” reformer; became a fire-breathing nationalist and Slobodan Milosevic’s strong right arm; then split from Milosevic and became the darling of the West; and is currently BFF with Moscow. (There’s been a lot of discussion about Serbia’s relationship with Russia. It’s less widely realized that Montenegro is much closer to Russia now than Serbia has ever been.)
There’s a lot to dislike about Djukanovic. His role in the Yugoslav wars has been quietly swept under the rug, but he was Prime Minister when Montenegrin forces looted their way through southern Croatia and did their best to destroy Dubrovnik. He’s been indicted by Italian authorities for mafia activities. (The indictment is currently suspended; as a sitting Prime Minister, Djukanovic has diplomatic immunity.) Heâ€™s made himself a millionaire many times over, he winks at violence against journalists and opposition supporters, and heâ€™s never hesitated to steal an election if he thought he could get away with it. Democracy and human rights are not likely to move forward rapidly under his administration.
On the other hand, heâ€™s smart, energetic, and competent. Under his administration, Montenegro got through three major political crises (the break with Milosevic in 1996-7, the Kosovo war in 1999, and the secession of 2006) much better than anyone could have expected.
At the end of the day, Djukanovic is an intelligent, amoral opportunist. Heâ€™s never had any ideology beyond getting power, keeping power, staying safe, and getting rich. Within those parameters, he’s done pretty well for Montenegro. So it’s likely he’ll continue to dominate Montenegrin politics for a long time to come.
4) Sali Berisha of Albania. Strictly speaking, Berisha is from the class of ’92. But Communism fell a bit later in Albania than elsewhere, so I’d say he squeaks in.
Berisha was President of Albania from 1992 to 1997, when his Presidency ended in disaster and the near-collapse of Albania’s economy. Then he spent eight years in political eclipse. Then, to everyone’s surprise, he came back to win the Prime Minister’s seat in 2005. He just won a second term as Prime Minister in a tightly contested election a few weeks ago.
I’m not a huge fan of Berisha: he’s pompous, erratic and not nearly as bright as he seems to think. When he was President, back in the ’90s, he was thoroughly obnoxious: he treated dissent as treason, and his “re-election” was thoroughly bogus, marred by violence and massive vote fraud.
That said, his second tenure in power has seen him much, much better behaved. He’s mostly behaved himself, and the country has done pretty well — Albania has seen four years of solid economic growth, and social problems like crime and corruption have at least not become worse. Not high praise, but much better than anyone expected. And — give credit where it’s due — Albania’s last election seems to have been both free and fair. Nobody’s paid much attention, but yay Albania.
Berisha’s success is IMO something of a fluke. Basically, the rival leaders of his party all failed or self-destructed, and his predecessor as Prime Minister was grossly corrupt and unpopular. On the other hand, he’s capitalized on his opportunities very well, so perhaps I’m underestimating him.
Berisha will be around for another term, four more years. I find it hard to believe he could have a career past that, but then I found it hard to believe he won either of the last two elections. So what do I know.
5) Rahmon of Tajikistan. Emomali Rahmon took power in 1992, but the situation in early-1990s Tajikistan was so chaotic that it’s hard to say just when Communism ended.
Rahmon’s pretty much your bog-standard Central Asian dictator. The only thing that distinguishes him is that he’s managed to survive much more than any of the others: a brutal and bloody civil war, at least one assassination attempt, two coups. — The Tajik Civil War took place in the mid-1990s. It was far more destructive than the contemporary Yugoslav Wars — at one point, one Tajik in five was a refugee or an IDP — but was largely ignored by the outside world at the time, and has been almost entirely forgotten since. But it had a huge effect on the region; among other things, it helped justify authoritarian rule in the other ‘stans for a long time after.
Rahmon is just 57, so he’s likely to be around for a while to come.
There are two others that I don’t think qualify, but who are worth mentioning anyway. Igor Smirnov of Transnistria has been running the little breakaway non-state since 1990. Smirnov’s not much of a… well, anything. Under his rule, Transnistria has ended up just about as poor as Moldova, and rather less free. That’s sort of impressive, given that before 1990 Transnistria was the richer, much more developed part of Moldova. Still, Smirnov has survived because of Moscow’s support.
In terms of his rule… well, Transnistria is sort of halfway between Central Asia and the Balkans. On one hand, there’s no press freedom, the secret police keep an eye on everything, the Smirnov family has assembled an immense fortune, and Smirnov will be President as long as he wants to be. On the other, there is real opposition, even if it’s from rival factions in Transnistria’s small political elite; Smirnov is an authoritarian President-For-Life, but you couldn’t really call him a dictator.
Finally, there’s President Stjepan Mesic of Croatia. Mesic has been President since 2000. Before that he was Prime Minister of Croatia before its independence (1990) and then briefly the last President of Yugoslavia (1991). I don’t think that quite qualifies; Croatia’s first post-Communist leader was the late, unlamented Franjo Tudjman. But he has the rare distinction of having been head of state both before and after the fall of Communism.
I’d like to draw some sweeping conclusion from all this, but… well, I don’t really see one. Central Asia is run by Big Men; in fact, from 1992 to 2006, it was the same five guys in charge. The Balkans have come a very long way in the last ten years. (This is not appreciated as much as it should be.) Djukanovic I view as a one-off, a unique political talent, while Berisha I see as a fluke. Or so ISTM.