Who’s left from the Class of ’91?

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.) He’s made himself a millionaire many times over, he winks at violence against journalists and opposition supporters, and he’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, he’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. He’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.

Comments, thoughts?

13 thoughts on “Who’s left from the Class of ’91?

  1. Doug,

    It is hard to admit for me as i am a part of the generation who left Albania at the lowest point and the zenit of Berisha’s power but Berisha is a political talent. Well, only if you define political talent as excelling in machiavelian tactics. Despite trying he is however completely inept of doing anything constructive (like in strategic economic thinking, curbing poverty, reducing dependency from remittances, i mean in solving some -not many- real problems). I guess this is mainly due to his remarkable inability to delegate.

    Anyway, you gave some arguments for Berisha. Albanias good economic development, his “good behaviour” during his last term and the fair elections. Let me be frank. None of your assertions hold.

    Albanias economic development is still driven by the early reforms of the 90-ties, the release of economic energy from the system overhowl (land privatization, shock therapy etc.) and from demografic changes (inner migration, and emigration). Other eastern european countries are well beyond this phase. I mean, Berisha has absolutely no stake at the current development. If he had, than it has been mainly negative and slowing.

    The good behaviour is not due to any change in Berisha but to Albania’s change. Beating political opponents, complete control of the media and old school intimidation of journalists are unthinkable in Albania now. Berisha is however trying to morphe into something similar of an Albanin Putin or Chavez. He is just too week to succeed. But, -and here lies some political merit- he has succeded into agnowledging the change in Albania and has adopted more refined tactics. He is trying to controll the media by threatening their owners with tax evasion and by supporting with contracts the people behind media near him. And he is slownly building his own oligarchs and monopolies. Wait, wasn’t that the same what Putin did?

    Lets go to the last elections. Due to pressure from the opposition the election law was overhowled so that manipulation was harder. This time it was much harder to get fake voters to the polls (Berisha’s usual tactic) but he succeeded to manipulate a small but crucial part of the counting process, which at the end is giving him a victory by narrow margins.

    Berisha is the worst that could ever happen to Albania, he has however dominated Albanian politics even during his years in oposition (even then he was the socialists’ best excuse for becoming corrupt and careless). He finally has succeded because he hasn’t allowed his opponents in the right political specter to separate votes.

  2. Dug I understand you might not be a fan of Berisha but I think you should stick to facts and not let yourself be influenced by feelings or interests.

    I am mentioning just certain changes we failed to see in 20 years taking place just recently under Berisha’s “regime”

    When socialists were in power every city was ran by its own gang who could even kill cops. Everyone was terrified of them since they were the real rulers.
    Today Albania is a Nato country !

    In only four years salaries and pensions either have been doubled or raised substantially.

    According to World Bank the nr of poor people in Albania has been reduced by 30%

    According to Transparency International, Albania ranks first in Balkans in the progress made fighting corruption.

    According to World Bank Albania ranks second in the world for undertaking reforms in creating the best business environment.

    Albania has never seen such a transformation in terms of infrastructure. 6000 km of new or existing roads has been build or rehabilitated.

    As for elections DUG, this has been the first elections in the history of Europe where the COUNTING process has been filmed, aired live, and fully recorded for those interested to double check.

    So far no one has come with any evidence but if you have it DUG, don’t lose time blaming people in vain.

    As for media control don’t even go there since there’s no person in Albania that doesn’t know that Rama being the mayor of capital the most lucrative construction market controls (through construction licenses) far more medias than Berisha does (lets not start counting and become ridiculous)

    Berisha won because he’s done in 4 years what his opponents failed to do in 8. This is the only reason why he a 65 year old not only managed to defeat smo 20 years younger but had more support even on young voters (according to Zogby)

  3. Eni, meet GUD. GUD, Eni.

    I’m sure you two will have a lot to talk about.

    Doug M.

  4. Pingback: Global Voices Online » CEE, Central Asia: Post-Communist Leaders

  5. Related category would be: out of power leaders who are likely to come back as the PM or the president. One is Edgar Savisaar, Estonia’s first post-independence PM (1990-1991). He is now leading the biggest opposition party in Estonia. And, if the financial crisis makes Estonians to rethink their support for the current right-of-center coalition in the next elections, Savisaar could be back as the PM.

  6. Pingback: Official Russia | CEE, Central Asia: Post-Communist Leaders

  7. If you had written the article half a year earlier, then Ivars Godmanis of Latvia would make the list, too. He was the Prime Minister when Latvia became independent fro USSR in 1991 and somewhat unexpectedly he was a Prime Minister again from Dec 2007 – Feb 2008. That said, he is unlikely to make to the very top again. His nomination was a sign of desperation, when the President could not find anyone to take up the job after the mess that Kalvitis (and everyone else before him) had made.

    But I am curious of what you would have written about Mr Godmanis. Your Central Asian and Balkan characters are much more “interesting” and easier to write about and cathegorize than many leaders in Central Europe and the Baltic States.

  8. GUD, it would be a pitty to focus the discussion on Berisha in this otherwise interesting post for i think he is one of the most uninteresting personalities mentioned here. His qualities (a mix of clanish intelligence combined with patriarchalism and complete lack of visions) have been/are common among many Albanian rulers and commoners.

    However, to your points. Albania entered Nato neither because of Berisha nor because of fulfilling any standards. It was a strategic decision due to the role of Albanians in the region. Paradoxally, the decision to NATO membership was taken only some weeks after the explosion of Gerdec (a major corruption scandal involving the minister of defence and some high level officials).

    After the Albanian elections some Nato officials expressed embarrasment and rightly remarked that NATO is not an exclusive club of democratic saints but a military alliance that has to make pragmatic decisions. I personally think that Nato membership might indeed help Albania in accelerating the establishment of democratic standards and is generally a good thing for Albania’s democracy. Democratic standarts were however not the reason why Albania was offered membership.

    The counting process was to a small but crucial extent politically manipulated. The counting in the election center of Fier was blocked several days by Berisha’s commisioners without any legal reason to prevent the socialists from taking a crucial mandate. Berisha used those days to blackmail and coerce LSI into coalition with him (the alternate left coalition). Legal requests from the opposition to recount some of the election centers were turned down from the central electoral commision (which Berisha controls). Influencing the counting process to achieve coalition goals is enough political manipulation to me but much worse is refusing to recount votes especially with Berishas history. I mean, the refusal of recounting was a good enough reason for massive protests in Iran. Yes, these manipulation techniques were much finer then what Berisha used to do in the 90-ies. They remain however unacceptable by any democratic standard.

    Put shortly.
    a)Berisha is simply uncapable to organise fair elections. These elections were fairer because of his weak position and the massive pressure from the opposition.

    b)By not fulfilling simple administrative tasks (biometric passes, etc) Berisha managed to let Serbia surpass Albania in the process of european integration and shengen admission. Do not forget that Serbia has had 4 wars, almost a decade of economic blocades in the last 20 years and it still suffers political isolation due to Kosovo.

    c)Last but not least, Berisha is politically too weak to push major reforms or to combat curruption. He is so week that he has actually succumbed to it. Even wholehearted attemts for the right reforms cannot be implemented by Berisha for his opponents have an easy play by calling his actions a return to his former methods. He just has a dark history behind him, sorry. All his last term was about, was a personal political rehabilitation (behaving, no more journalists’ kidnapping etc). Personal rehabilitation of Berisha is however hardly what one of the poorest countries in Europe can afford.

  9. Since Godmanis was mentioned as a past example, there’s also Arnold Rüütel from Estonia. Rüütel could – well, almost, stretching the definitions just a little bit – challenge Stipe Mesic as another leader with the “rare distinction of having been head of state both before and after the fall of Communism”.

    Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Estonian SSR, 1983; Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Estonian SSR, 1990; Head of State in the newly-independent Estonia until 1992; and finally, President of Estonia, 2001-2006.

    As the April 1996 issue of “Playboy” already stated: “The best hot new thing you can be is old, in the sense of being so old that you can be rediscovered – in other words, retro. This explains why the hot new star is John Travolta and the hot new action hero is James Bond and the hot new look is from the Sixties. Retro also explains why the hot new peace dividend (freedom) in eastern Europe is allowing voters in fledgling democracies to elect ex-communists”.


    J. J.

  10. @ Latvian abroad, that’s interesting! I knew Savisaar only as the Mayor of Talinn who had spoken out in favor of keeping the Bronze Soldier. I didn’t realize he could still be Prime Minister again!

    Didzis, it’s not a bad thing for a country to have boring leaders…

    Doug M.

  11. Re: Djukanovic – in addition to being, in my opinion, a true political talent, is blessed with the most inept opposition one could imagine existing in a functioning democracy. Far from offering some kind of coherent alternative to Djukanovic’s ruling DPS, the opposition is a bunch of guys with comically retrograde ideas, whose entire raison d’etre up until 2006 was preventing Montenegro’s independence, and who have been in search of a political program ever since. But if anything, this makes Djukanovic’s progression from socialist autocrat to a genuine liberal democrat that much more impressive – absent any electoral pressure, he could have easily become another Voronin.

    Re: Mesic, there are persistent rumors that he has every intention of remaining active in Croatia’s political life after he steps down from the presidency in a few months. The question, however, is what form that activity would take. Mesic certainly sees himself as not only capable of leading the left bloc to victory, especially now that Sanader’s sudden exit has made the prospect of early elections more likely. It’s less certain that the SDP sees him as the right choice to lead them to victory, but they can surely see the advantage in having the country’s most enduringly popular figure on their side. Much will depend on the outcome of the presidential elections – if the HDZ ekes out another win, Mesic might find himself staying relevant well into the next decade.

  12. For some reason, when I think of Djukanovic, the first thing that comes to mind is Vladimir Meciar.

    Perhaps I am just filling in the blanks here. Perhaps there really is little comparison between Djukanovic’s Montenegro and Meciar’s Slovakia.

Comments are closed.