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The East: Ten Years After 1989--The Revolutions That Brought Down Communism

  • Jeremy Bransten

In retrospect, the revolutions of 1989 that brought down communism in Eastern Europe seem to have been inevitable. By that year, the corruption, economic decay and staleness of the ideology had become apparent to all. And when the masses took to the streets, the "people's republics" fell like a deck of cards across the continent. But what seems self-evident today appeared an impossible vision at the start of the year. As part of RFE/RL's series marking the tenth anniversary of the events of 1989, RFE/RL's Jeremy Bransten explores the paradox that the revolutions of 1989 were both so inevitable, and so unexpected.

Prague, 8 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- It would be inaccurate and at best arbitrary to isolate a single event as the trigger for the revolutions that redrew the face of Europe in 1989.

With hindsight, several dates and events that preceded that momentous year can be plucked from history. Whether it is Hungary's uprising in 1956 or the Prague Spring of 1968, the birth of Solidarity in 1980, or the unleashing of glasnost by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev - all bore the seeds of future revolution.

But what happened in 1989 was unique. This time, the revolutions were actually successful. Moscow's empire and the division of Europe were swept aside inside a year. The speed of events caught all observers -- both East and West -- by surprise.

Just as communism in Central Europe came from Moscow, one needs to begin in Russia to chronicle the system's unraveling. Although the people of Central and Eastern Europe launched their own revolutions, it was Moscow's decision not to suppress those revolts that allowed them to snowball.

British historian Timothy Garton Ash explains why:

"By the time Gorbachev came to power, he and his colleagues, who knew Eastern Europe well -- many of them had spent time in Prague, like (Yegor) Yakovlev -- realized that you could not carry on ruling the East European empire in the same way, that something had to change. And so, that was a specific cause of the change of their Eastern European policy to a more permissive policy... And that more permissive policy enabled the Poles and the Hungarians to make the opening which started the changes in 1989."

The so-called Brezhnev doctrine, which justified Soviet interference in the affairs of its Warsaw Pact allies, was replaced, as a Soviet spokesman quipped, with the Sinatra doctrine. Everyone could do things "their way."

The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in February 1989 provided tangible evidence of Moscow's rejection of force to sustain its empire.

At the time, ferment was already brewing in Hungary and Poland. That same month, the Communist government in Warsaw began round-table talks with delegates from the banned Solidarity trade union and the Roman Catholic Church. In Budapest, a month later, eight anti-Communist opposition groups joined forces, also seeking negotiations with the Communist authorities. The departure from office of Janos Kadar the previous year, Hungary's long-time Communist leader, signaled a new softening on the part of the government.

By April, the Polish Communists, under intense public pressure, agreed to general elections in June and the legalization of Solidarity. That poll, although only semi-free, was to mark a turning point. Solidarity candidates won outright, in the first round, all but a handful of seats for which they were allowed to compete.

In the upper house of parliament, where Solidarity was allowed to contest all mandates, the union won 99 of the chamber's 100 seats. The Communists acknowledged this stunning defeat and two months later were obliged to accept dissident Tadeusz Mazowiecki as the country's first non-Communist prime minister in more than 40 years.

In Hungary, that same summer, the cathartic event that signaled the death knell of Communism was, appropriately, a funeral. Imre Nagy, the leader of the 1956 uprising against the Soviet Union, was given a state burial 31 years after being hanged for treason. At the ceremony, attended by tens of thousands and broadcast live on national television, opposition leader Viktor Orban called for free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops.

The end of the season brought the linking of hands of hundreds of thousands of Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians across the Baltics, to mark the 50th anniversary of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. For the first time in half a century, national flags flew freely, and calls for independence from Moscow were voiced aloud.

Sensing an opportunity, East Germans began voting with their feet -- emigrating to the West through Hungary's newly open border with Austria. In a symbolic gesture, Hungarian authorities had dismantled the barbed wire on their frontier just a few months before.

When Gorbachev visited the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in October for the 40th anniversary of the country's founding, the flow of East Germans fleeing the West had already turned into a flood. Tens of thousands of demonstrators were taking to the streets, challenging the government with the slogan: "We Are The People."

Gorbachev, in a remark rich in irony, admonished GDR Communist leader Erich Honnecker that history does not forgive those who fail to move with the times. Back in Moscow, Russian politician Boris Yeltsin was already nipping at Gorbachev's heels, calling for the removal of the article in the Soviet Constitution that enshrined the leading role of the Communist Party.

Ten days later, Honnecker was removed from his post by associates desperate to hold onto power.

November brought the fall of the Berlin Wall, the ultimate symbol of the separation of East and West. For many, the sight of thousands of ordinary Germans, armed with hammers, champagne bottles and pick-axes, chipping away at this most concrete manifestation of the Iron Curtain, was the defining moment of 1989.

The next day, the GDR formally opened its border. Politburo member Guenter Schabowski made the following announcement:

"Because we consider the present situation to be untenable... We have decided to adopt new regulations which will allow every citizen of the GDR to freely travel through all border points of the GDR. "

On November 17, students demonstrating peacefully in Prague were beaten by police, lighting the fuse for Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution." Dissidents who had been sweeping streets or stoking coal fires just a few days before led the revolt -- among them, playwright Vaclav Havel, who began the year in prison, only to end it as president of his country.

As Garton Ash quipped at the time: "What took 10 years in Poland, took 10 months in Hungary, 10 weeks in East Germany and ultimately 10 days in Czechoslovakia."

In the final month of the year, U.S. President George Bush and Gorbachev met on the island of Malta to plan the removal of Soviet troops from Europe. The Cold War, it appeared, was over. Gorbachev stated Moscow's new philosophy:

"We have renounced the monopoly of truth, and do not think that we are better than the rest and always right about everything, and that anyone who disagrees with us is our enemy. Henceforth we are firmly and irreversibly guided in politics by the principle of freedom of choice, in economic life, science, and technology by the principle of mutual benefit and in the intellectual and ideological sphere by the principle of dialogue and acceptance of all that is applicable to our conditions and ought in consequence to be assimilated and utilized, for our own progress."

Two weeks later, the only violent revolution in Eastern Europe broke out in Romania. Within days, after bloody clashes, the people reclaimed the western city of Timisoara from the authorities.

On Christmas Day, Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were executed. 1989 was over, and with it, European communism.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who first identified Gorbachev as a man with which the West "could do business," was jubilant:

"What a fantastic year this has been for freedom! 1989 will be remembered for decades to come as the year when the people of half our Continent began to throw off their chains."

It was a year rich in ironies, too. The biggest one may be that the Communist system was destroyed by a man who meant to save it. Gorbachev, now a private citizen, has said he intended only to reform communism, not sweep it away.