Owners and Winners in Eastern Europe

BUDAPEST: Only by the skin of his teeth did Vaclav Klaus, the blunt proponent of a "market economy without adjectives," return to power in Prague after last spring's parliamentary elections. Even so, his country is unique in the region in the strength of its support for reforms.

While Western observers rejoiced over the victory of Boris Yeltsin, parties tied to the communist past still control Russia's Duma. Only their openly reactionary attitude may have cost the Communists last July's election. More moderate postcommunist parties, on the other hand, are in power in Warsaw, Budapest, Bucharest, Sofia, and throughout most of the former Soviet empire. Only in the Czech Republic are elections nowadays fought between Western-style liberals and Western-style social democrats, with postcommunists (reformed or not) largely absent from the political scene.

That this is no accident of electoral mechanics is proved by studies that probe the attitudes of ordinary Czechs. Among ten countries in the New Democracies Barometer organized by Professor Richard Rose of the University of Strathclyde in Great Britain, for example, the Czechs are the most approving of the new economic system and political regime, and are most antagonistic to the economic and political environment that existed prior to 1989.

Many believe that prewar democratic traditions are responsible for Czech exceptionalism. But there may be another reason why Czechs are more supportive of reform, and it may be related to the sense of empowerment they feel as a result of bold ownership reforms put into effect by the Klaus government.