Eastern Europe: Revolutions of 1989
After the demise of Stalin in 1953, Khrushchev rose to power and a period of ‘de-stalinization’, also known as Khrushchev thaw, followed. There was a moderate shift toward liberalization and openness in Soviet Russia. In many countries of the Eastern Bloc, the first change that was seen was relaxing the suppression of the intelligentsia. In Hungary, people tried to go a little further, and brought about a large-scale uprising against their government that was virtually under Soviet control. This massive revolt, however, was quickly and effectively quelled by an attack of the Soviet Red Army. There were thousands of Hungarian civilian and militia casualties, while Soviet military personnel too died in hundreds. There was also a less well-known uprising of East Germany in 1953, just a couple of months after Stalin’s death. This too was quickly suppressed by declaring emergency and sending in the Red Army.
In Poland, however, the drive toward reform was more successful. The Stalinist era in Poland ended with Gomulka’s reform faction rising to power. Though Gomulka’s regime did not stand up to its initial promise, the so-called Polish October of 1956 was a significant period of transition for Poland. Over a decade later, a process of democratization and economic reform was initiated in Czechoslovakia, and lasted for a brief period known as the Prague Spring. Again, a Soviet military intervention was needed to control this movement against communism or shift toward capitalism.
Throughout the 60’s and 70’s the Eastern Bloc countries stagnated and their economies deteriorated. The communist system of state planning led to the building up of enormous economic inefficiencies. Poverty and inflation grew unchecked. In Poland more than half of the population lived in poverty and the situation was not much different in the other countries of the Bloc. Reforms were attempted from time to time, but none of them were successful. The beginning of a major change toward democracy first emerged in Poland in 1980 when an independent trade union, Solidarity, led by Lech Walesa, was formed. Poland’s communist leader Jaruzelski soon started a crackdown on Solidarity. But in the subsequent years, Solidarity grew in strength, operating from underground. The influence of Solidarity spread widely by 1988. Nationwide strikes in the same year finally made the government realize the power of Walesa’s party and open a dialogue with it.
Meanwhile, crucial changes that would soon lead to the liberation of Eastern European countries were taking place in the Soviet Union. By the early 1980’s, although it still remained one of the two political superpowers of the world, the Soviet Union was almost disintegrating economically. Retaining its political superpower status — maintaining the empire, as it were — was one of the major burdens under which the Soviet economy was being crushed. It was therefore high time for changing the political and economic scenario of the Soviet Union drastically. At this stage, the Soviet Union benefitted from the vision of a new leader who would stand up to the occasion and turn around the entire course of things. In 1986, Gorbachev launched the policy of glasnost (political openness) and started a movement of economic reform that was named perestroika. So changes began to take place in the Soviet Union, but their influence still did not spread to the Eastern Bloc. This was so because although the reforms were occurring, they were not very radical and did not pick up momentum yet. Political repression continued to be operative in the Eastern Bloc.
However, within a year or two Moscow realized that in order to attract the good will of the Western countries, the fundamental thing it was expected to do was to release its grip on the Eastern Europe and dissolve the Iron Curtain. And Moscow very much needed all the possible support and help from America and other NATO countries, which were formerly its enemies. Therefore, Gorbachev took initiative to encourage political and economic reforms in the Bloc countries. While people of most of the countries wholeheartedly responded to his call, strong communist regimes were in place in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, and the governments of these countries tried to distance themselves from the influence of Gorbachev’s reforms.
By 1989, the Warsaw Pact was no longer in force, and one by one the Eastern European countries started freeing themselves from Soviet domination. The move toward reform in Eastern Europe was also inspired by Tiananmen Square protests of China in June 1989. Poland and Hungary were the first countries that came out of the grim shadow of the Iron Curtain. In Poland, a bicameral legislature was established, and it was decided that the Senate would be elected by the people. Parliamentary elections followed. Solidarity secured a sweeping victory, capturing nearly all of the seats. The new non-Communist government was in power by September, 1989. In the wake of Poland’s democratic revolution, Hungary too was successful in establishing a non-communist government. Changes in Hungary had in fact been occurring for several years, and by the deposition of Janos Kadar, the General Secretary of the Communist Party, in 1988 they intensified. The Hungarian Parliament adopted a well-rounded ‘democracy package’, including a new electoral law, a radical revision of constitution and so on, in 1988 itself. However, a full-fledged democratic government could be in place only after October 1989.
In November of that year, an iconic event that symbolized the entire movement toward economic and political freedom happened in East Germany when the Berlin Wall which stood for separation of East and West was finally dismantled. Thousands of Berliners freely crossed over into West Berlin. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, there occurred in Czechoslovakia what is known as a Velvet Revolution, nonviolent strikes and protests clamoring for relinquishment of power by the Communist Party. By the end of the year, a non-communist government led by Vaclav Havel was in place. In Bulgaria too, similar changes happened at the same time. With Romania, however, the case was very different. Romania had been a bastion of communism for all these decades, and its president Nicolae Ceausescu was still hoping to stem the tide of anti-communism. Till late in December, 1989, the Romanian army supported the Romanian dictator in suppressing the protests, but suddenly it changed sides and Ceausescu was taken out in a military coup.
Clearly all these major changes in Eastern Europe were triggered by Gorbachev’s initiative for political liberalization and economic reform. Khrushchev too initiated reform, but it was very limited, and set strictly in the communist framework. With Gorbachev, however, things were different; he was willing to go all the way and do whatever it took to bring about political freedom and economic progress. After the first couple of years of Gorbachev’s tenure, his attitude clearly indicated that he was not the person to clamp down on any protests or revolts that may arise in the Bloc countries. In fact he was encouraging them. With the major hurdle of possible Soviet crackdown out of the way, reforms in Eastern Europe followed in the natural course of things. Freedom triumphed once again.