The Revolutions of 1989–91

Milestones of the Revolutions

The term “revolution” is commonly used to denote a great change, attended by mass mobilization and exuberance, that leaves a lasting imprint on the course of history. But in the fall of 1989, only a few demonstrators and dissidents dared to spell it out. Doing so would have put them at considerable personal risk and perhaps provoked a violent crackdown by the communist security forces. After decades of obligatory annual celebrations to commemorate the Bolshevik Revolution, the term had become tainted and overused. Indeed, revolution was still associated with mass violence, which conflicted with the opposition’s strategy of nonviolent resistance. Moreover, for a long time, dissidents called for the reform of the existing system, not its abolition. They formulated their demands within the parameters of perestroika and its Eastern European variants. To a degree, then, describing the upheaval of 1989 as a revolution is anachronistic. Contemporaries did not refer to it as such until the communists were already losing their grip on power.1 But then this term endowed the turmoil with meaning, and hope that communism in its gray form of “real existing socialism” was over. It signified that better times were ahead.

In the sense of Charles Tilly, Theda Skocpol, Hannah Arendt, and other older revolution theorists, the years between 1989 and 1991 certainly fit the definition of the term.2 There was a prehistory and a classic causal precondition—the decay of the ancien régime—followed by a revolutionary process and completed by revolutionary results. The main questions in this chapter are then: What kind of revolution occurred at the end of the twentieth century and what impact did it have? Were the opportunities presented by the revolution adequately used? (This question is explored further toward the end of the book.) The young people, especially, out in the streets in the fall and winter of 1989 (among them the author of this book) were united by a sense of excitement and potential. But the period did not spawn a “generation of ’89” similar to those from the historic years 1968 or 1848. So is there a lasting legacy of 1989, and if so, what would define it?

Before exploring these questions concerning the form, impact, and legacy of this most recent wave of revolutions, it seems appropriate to briefly survey the major events.3 The key milestones, in chronological order, were: 1) the establishment of a “round table” in Poland in early 1989 and its resolutions to permit independent trade unions, hold elections in June, and introduce further economic reforms; 2) the Hungarian communists’ reappraisal in the spring of 1989 of the failed revolution of 1956 and decision to allow a multiparty system, freedom of assembly, and other basic democratic rights; 3) the devastating defeat of the communists in Poland at the elections on 4 June 1989, on the same day as Chinese armed forces crushed the protests on Tiananmen Square in a countermodel of violent suppression; 4) the mass exodus of GDR citizens across the Hungarian border that summer, bringing down the Iron Curtain; 5) the popularity of the Monday Demonstrations in Leipzig and other East German cities, corroding the regime of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and compelling it to open the Berlin Wall on November 9; 6) the breakdown of the communist regime in Bulgaria just one day later and the “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia in mid-November; 7) Moscow’s confirmation of the existence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in December 1989, which opened the door to independence for the Baltic republics; and 8) the bloody final act in Romania, with the execution of dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife on December 25.

Media portrayals of the radical changes are often confined to the year 1989, but in fact there were further crucial developments in 1990 and 1991, including 9) election victories for the distinctly national parties in the constituent republics of Yugoslavia, presaging the final disintegration of the economically bankrupt state; 10) the end of the GDR by economic union with the FRG and the accession of the five East German states (the “Fünf Neue Länder”) to the former West Germany; 11) the outbreak of armed conflict in Yugoslavia in summer 1991; 12) Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia finally gaining independence following a coup d’état against Gorbachev that August; 13) the end of communism in its last bastion, Albania; and 14) the official breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991. This staccato sequence of quantum leaps and jumps created a sense of time accelerating. Individual contemporaries could hardly grasp the ramifications of all the changes.

When the communist regimes collapsed, so did Europe’s postwar order. The depth of the changes can only be understood from a long-term historical perspective. In 1991, Russia lost all the territories it had acquired since its imperial expansion westward in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Ukraine on the left bank of the Dnieper (Treaty of Andruszowo, 1667), the Baltic states (Treaty of Nystad, 1721), Ukraine on the right bank of the Dnieper (first partition of Poland, 1772), and further Lithuanian and Polish territories (second and third partitions of Poland, 1793–95). The current conflict over Ukraine stems from Russia’s ambition to at least partially reverse this loss of power and influence.

In a speech to the State Duma in 2005, Vladimir Putin described the disintegration of the Soviet Union as the “largest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century.” He went on to give a foretaste of his neoimperialist foreign policy in 2014 by declaring himself the protector of Russians living in neighboring states.4 Yet one of the major accomplishments of the revolutions of 1989–91 had been Russia’s (temporary) relaxation of efforts to be a rival superpower to the United States. President Boris Yeltsin realized that attempting to rule over neighboring nations and large parts of Europe and Central Asia was too costly for Russia and resulted in imperial overstretch. The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic declared independence, spelling the definitive end of the Soviet Union. For the first time in its history, Moscow broke away from its own empire.

The geopolitical situation in Eastern Europe improved as a result. The region no longer formed a buffer zone between the West and the East, as it had in the interwar years and the first years after the Second World War. The Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary joined NATO in 1999; Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Baltic states—three former Soviet republics—followed in 2004. As the European Union and NATO expanded, most of the East Central and Southeast European states clearly aligned themselves with the West. When Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union in 2007, it gained two more predominantly Orthodox Christian countries, after Greece. Commentators in Romania were inspired to speak of a “Europe from the Atlantic to the Black Sea.” No other revolution in the history of Europe, other than those of 1789–94, had had such a deep impact on the political geography of the continent.

The collapse of the last European superpower and the multi-ethnic states Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia heralded a new phase of nation-state building in Europe, the “third wave” following Italian unification and the Congress of Berlin in the nineteenth century (1859–78) and the period of reorganization after the end of the First World War. As previously, it triggered violence and even wars. The former Yugoslavia was engulfed by violence as Slobodan Milošević and the leaders of the Serbian minorities in Croatia and Bosnia tried to construct an ethnically defined Greater Serbia and refused to accept the preexisting borders of the constituent republics. In contrast, the former Soviet Union, with the exception of the Caucasus and small conflict zones such as Transnistria and the Fergana Valley in Central Asia, remained mostly peaceful—perhaps because Yugoslavia served as a warning example. Czechoslovakia, the last explicitly multinational state in Europe, also disintegrated without bloodshed. Nationalism was not the only reason for these states’ collapse. Rifts appeared in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia over the course transformation should take, with proponents of gradual reforms fiercely opposing the supporters of radical changes.

The model of the monoethnic nation-state was more stringently followed in 1989 than after the First World War. Yet few borders were redrawn, unlike after 1918. The existing federal units of multinational states were largely retained. In the 1990s, some observers extrapolated that the success of transformation was linked closely to levels of national homogeneity. According to Milada Vachudová and Timothy Snyder, this was the reason why the largely monoethnic countries Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary were pioneers of reforms.5 Certainly, the Romanian and Serbian (post)communists exploited ethnic dividing lines to their political advantage. But the later development of Slovakia and Romania—countries with large Hungarian minorities—disprove the thesis. It is one of the negative aspects of transformation that the situation of the Roma people, however, remains desperate throughout Eastern Europe.

Map 1.  The new Europe.

The “new Europe” consists predominantly of small or very small states. There is a rough balance of ten or twelve countries with populations of up to two million inhabitants (some not even as large as Connecticut or New Hampshire), between two and five million, and between five and ten million. Only eight countries have populations of over twenty million: Germany, France, Italy, Great Britain, Spain, Poland, Ukraine, and Russia. Jan Zielonka, a political scientist at Oxford, has proposed that the enlarged European Union is like a “neomedieval empire” with a federal structure held together by a weak central power, similar to the Holy Roman Empire, dissolved in 1806, or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which ceased to exist in 1795.6 Not only the extent, then, but also the quality of statehood in Europe has changed. Brussels has gained considerably more power by its active involvement in the transformation.

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