POLITICAL CHANGES IN EASTERN EUROPE DURING 1989-2001

Introduction

  • In the short period from August 1988 to December 1991 communism in Eastern Europe was swept away. In the beginning of 1980s few western experts on the communist world could have believed that the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union were about to enter a new phases of their destiny and engage in changes unmatched in scope and scale since the 1940s. All that then could be safely predicted was that communist countries would go on finding it more and more difficult to maintain even the modest growth rates they had so far attained. Not all western ‘experts’ would have risked going even so far as that, though it should at least have been clear that comparison with the market economies of the non-communist would had become more and more unfavorable to the command economies. Yet even if that was conceded, no possible challenge to the verdict of 1945, and those hardly less resounding of 1953, 1956 and 1968, seemed possible in 1980. Soviet power still seemed to hold Eastern Europe in its grip as firmly as ever.
  • In the European countries which were liberated by soviet troops, communist parties and their supporters had established their exclusive control. These countries were allied to the Soviet Union as members of the Warsaw pact. They were often described as ‘satellites’ of the Soviet Union. The latter frequently imposed its will, sometimes with the use of armed forces, on the communist parties and government of these countries.
  • These countries did not receive the benefits of the European recovery programme and had to rely mostly on their own resources. The Soviet Union was in no position to provide the kind of massive aid which the US had given to Western Europe. The kind of socialism that was sought to be built in these countries was based on the soviet model. The economies of the latter. Most of these countries had been backward agricultural economies. Although the level of their economic development was not comparable to that of the advanced west European countries, the industrialization of these countries was a significant development. The evils associated with the concentration of economic power in private hands were avoided and the hold of the old ruling classes and big landlords eliminated in these countries. But the Communism as it existed in Eastern Europe was a failure economically. It simply did not produce the standard of living which should have been possible, given the vast resources available. The economic systems were inefficient; over- centralized and subject to too many restrictions. All the states, for example, were expected to do most of their trading within the communist bloc only. Because of all these factors by the mid-1980s severe economic problems cropped up everywhere.
  • The political developments in USSR during 1985-90 also influenced the developments in Eastern European countries. Mikhail Gorbachev, who became leader of the USSR in March 1985, recognized the failings of the Communist system. He hoped to save communism by revitalizing and modernizing it. He introduced new policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic and social reform). Criticism of the system was encouraged in the drive for improvement, provided nobody criticized the communist part. He also helped to engineer the overthrow of the old-fashioned, hard-core communist leaders in Czechoslovakia, and he was probably involved in plotting the overthrow of the East German, Romanian and Bulgarian leaders. His hope was that more progressive leaders would increase the chances of saving communism in Russia’s satellite states.
  • The communist leaderships in the satellite states found it difficult to adapt to the new situation of having a leader in Moscow who was more progressive than they were. The critics became more daring as they realized that Gorbachev would not send soviet troops in to fire on them. With no help to be expected from Moscow, when it came to the crisis, none of the communist government was prepared to use sufficient force against the demonstrators (except in Romania). When they came, the rebellions were too widespread, and it would have needed a huge commitment of tanks and troops to hold down the whole of Eastern Europe simultaneously. Having only just succeeded in withdrawing from Afghanistan, Gorbachev had no desire for an even greater involvement. In the end it was a triumph of people power’ demonstrator deliberately defied the threat of violence in such huge numbers that troops would have had to shoot a large proportion of the population in the big cities to keep control. Poland was the first to reject communism, closely followed by Hungary and East Germany and the rest, until by the end of 1991 even Russia had ceased to be communist after seventy four years.

 

Changes in Poland

  • General Jaruzelski became leader of Poland in 1981. He was prepared to take a tough line. When Solidarity (the new Trade Union movement) demanded a referendum to demonstrate the strength of its support, Jaruzelski declared martial law, banned solidarity and arrested thousands of activists. The army obeyed his orders because everybody was still afraid of Russian military intervention. By July 1983 the government was in firm control. Jaruzelski felt it safe to lift martial law and Solidarity members were gradually released. But the underlying problem was still there; all attempts to improve the economy had failed. In 1988 when Jaruzelski tried to economize by cutting government subsidies, protest and strikes broke out because the changes sent food prices up. This time Jaruzelski decided not to risk using force, he knew that he would not be having any backing from Moscow, and that he needed opposition support to deal with the economic crisis. Talks opened in February 1989 between the communist government and Solidarity and other opposition groups. By April 1989 following sensational changes in the constitution were agreed-
  1. Solidarity was allowed to become a political party.
  2. There were to be two houses of parliament, a lower house and a Senate.
  3. In the lower house, 65 per cent of the seats had to be communist seats.
  4. The Senate was to be freely elected with no guaranteed communist seats.
  5. The two houses voting together would elect a President, who would then choose a prime minister.
  • In the elections f June 1989 Solidarity won 92 out of the 100 sears in the senate and 160 out of the 161 seats which they could fight in the lower house. A compromise deal was worked out when it came to forming a government; Jaruzelski was narrowly elected president, thanks to all the guaranteed communist seats in the lower house, but he chose a Solidarity supporter, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, as Prime Minister, the first non-communist leader in the Eastern bloc. Mazowiecki chose a mixed government of communists and solidarity supporters.
  • The new constitution proved to be only transitional. After the collapse of communism in the other East European states, further changes in Poland removed the guaranteed communist seats, and in the elections of December 1990, Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader, was elected President. With this the peaceful revolution in Poland was completed.
  • In Poland the first four years of non communist rule were hard for ordinary people as the government pushed ahead with its reorganization of the economy. By 1994 there were clear signs of recovery, but many people were bitterly disappointed with their new democratic government. In the presidential election of December 1995 Lech Walesa was defeated by a former communist party member Aleksander Kwaniewski.

 

Changes in Hungary

  • Once the Poles had thrown off communism without interference from the USSR, it was only a matter of time before the rest of Eastern Europe tried to follow suit. In Hungary also the living standards had fallen over the previous five years till 1985. This economic crisis was the result of poor management, poor organization and outdated machinery and equipment in the state sector of industry. The Hungarian government announced new measures of decentralization such as company councils and elected works managers. By 1987 there was conflict in the communist party between those who wanted more reform and those who wanted a return to strict central control. This reached a climax in May 1988. When, amid dramatic scenes at the party conference, President Janos Kadar and eight of his supporters were voted off the politburo, leaving the progressives in control.
  • But as in the USSR, progress was not drastic for many people. Two large opposition parties became increasingly active. These were the Liberal Alliance of Free Democrats and the Democratic Forum, which stood for the interests of farmers and peasants. The Hungarian communist leadership, following the example of the Poles, decided to go peacefully. Free elections were held in March 1990, and in spite of a change of name to Hungarian Socialist Party, the communists suffered a crushing defeat. The election was won by the Democratic Forum, whose leader Jozsef Antall, became the Prime Minister of Hungary.

 

Re-Unification of Germany

  • Like other communists countries of Eastern Europe, East Germany was also passing through a serious economic problems. Erich Honecker was the leader of East Germany since 1971. He had refused all the demands of reforms and intended to stand firm, along with Czechoslovakia, Romania and the other East European countries to keep communism in place.
  • Desperate to get financial help for the USSR from West Germany, Gorbachev paid a visit to chancellor Kohl in Bonn in June 1989 and promised to help to bring an end to the divided Germany in return for German economic aid. He was secretly promising freedom for East Germany. During August and September 1989 thousands of East Germans began to escape to the west via Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, when Hungary opened its front with Austria. The protestant Church in East Germany became the focus of an opposition party called New Forum which campaigned to bring an end to the repressive and atheistic communist regime. In October 1989 there was a wave of demonstrations all over East Germany demanding freedom and an end to communism.
  • Honecker wanted to order the army to open fire on the demonstrators, but other leading communities were not prepared to cause widespread bloodshed. They dropped Honecker and his successor Egon Krenz and made concessions. The Berlin Wall was opened on 9th November 1989 and free elections were promised.
  • When the great powers began to drop hints that they would not stand in the way of a reunited Germany, the West German political parties moved into the East. Chancellor Kohl staged an election tour, and the East German version of his party (CDU) won an overwhelming victory in March 1990. The East German CDU leader Luther de Maiziere became prime minister. He was hoping for gradual moves towards reunification but again the pressure of people power carried all before it. Nearly everybody in East Germany seemed to want immediate union.
  • The USSR and the USA agreed that reunification could take place; Gorbachev promised that all Russian troops would be withdrawn from East Germany by 1994. France and British, who were less happy about German reunification, felt bound to go along with the flow. Germany was formally reunited at midnight of 3rd October 1990. In December 1990 elections were held for whole of Germany and the conservative CDU/CSU alliance, together with their liberal FDP supporters, won a comfortable majority over the socialist SPD. The communists, renamed as the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), won only 17 of the 662 seats in the Bundestag (lower house of Parliament). Helmut Kohl became the first Chancellor of United Germany.

 

Changes in Czechoslovakia

  • Czechoslovakia had one of the most successful economies of Eastern Europe. She traded extensively with the West and her industry and commerce remained buoyant throughout the 1970s. But during the early 1980s the economy ran into trouble; mainly because there had been very little attempt to modernize industry. Husak, who had been in power since 1968, resigned in 1987, but his successor, Milos Jakes, did not have the reputation of a reformer. Then things changed suddenly in a matter of days, in what became known as the Velvet Revolution. On 17 November 1989 there was a huge demonstration in Prague during which many people were injured by police brutality. Charter 77, now led by the famous playwright, Vaclav Havel, organized further opposition and national strike was declared. This was enough to topple the communist regime. Jakes resigned and Havel was elected President on 29th December 1989.
  • Since 1968 she had been a federal republic comprising Czech Republic and Slovak republic. Following the end of the communist party’s rule, the two republics decided to separate and two independent states – the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic – came into being in 1993.

Changes in Romania

  • In Romania the communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu was one of the most brutal and repressive anywhere in the world. He was ruling in Romania since 1965. The Romanian revolution was short and bloody. It began in Timisoara, a town in western Romania, with a demonstration in support of a popular priest who was being harassed by the secret police. This was brutally put down on 17th December 1989 and many people were killed. This caused outrage throughout the country and when four days later Ceausescu and his wife appeared on the balcony of Communist party Headquarters in Bucharest to address a massed rally, they were greeted with boos and shouts of murderers of Timeshare. It seemed as though the entire population of Bucharest now streamed out on to the streets. At first the army fired on the crowds and many were killed and wounded. The following day the crowd came out again; but by now the army was refusing to continue the killing, and the Ceausescu had lost control. Nicolae Ceausescu was arrested, tried by a military tribunal and was shot dead on 25th December 1989.
  • The hated Ceausescu had gone, but many elements of communism remained in Romania. The country had never had democratic government and opposition had been so ruthlessly crushed that there was no equivalent of the Polish Solidarity and Czech Charter 77. When a committee calling itself the National Salvation Front was formed, it was full of former communists, though admittedly they were communists who wanted reform. Ion Iliescu, who had been a member of Ceausescu’s government until 1984, was chosen as President. He won the presidential election of May 1990 and the NSF won the election for a new Parliament. They strongly denied that the new government was really a communist one under a different name and they stayed in control until November 1996, when new elections brought Email Constantinescu, a Christian Democrat, to power at the head of a non-Communist coalition.

 

Changes in Bulgaria

  • In Bulgaria the communist leader Todor zhivkov had been in power since 1954. He had stubbornly refused all reforms, even when pressurized by Gorbachev. The progressive communists decided to get rid of him. The politburo voted to remove him in December 1989 and in June 1990 free elections were held. The Communists, now calling themselves the Bulgarian Socialist Party, won a comfortable victory over the main opposition party, the Union of Democratic Forces, probably because their propaganda machine told people that the introduction of capitalism would bring economic disaster.

 

Changes in Albania

  • Albania had been communist since 1945 when the communist resistance movement seized power and set up a republic. Like Yugoslavia, the Russians were not responsible for the introduction of communism there. Since 1946 until his death in 1985 the leader had been Enver Hoxha, who was a great admirer of Stalin and copied his system faithfully. Under its new leader, Ramiz Alia, Albania was still the poorest and the most backward country in Europe.
  • During the winter of 1991 many young Albanians tried to escape from their poverty by crossing the Adriatic Sea to Italy, but most of them were sent back. By this time student demonstrations were breaking out, and statues of Hoxha and Lenin were overturned. Eventually the Communist leadership bowed to the inevitable and allowed free elections. In 1992 the first non-communist President Sali Berisla was elected.

 

Changes in Yugoslavia

  • A major development in recent years has been the break – up of Yugoslavia and the tragic violence that has accompanied it. It may be recalled that Yugoslavia emerged as an independent state at the end of the First World War. During First World War, the people of Yugoslavia had waged a heroic war of resistance against the Nazi occupation. She became a federation of six republics after the Second World War.
  • Though ruled by the communist party, she had rejected soviet control. Joseph Broz Tito, who had led the Yugoslav resistance against Nazi occupation and subsequently headed the government of Yugoslavia, was, along with Jawaharlal Nehru, Nasser and Sukarno, the pioneer of the Non-Aligned movement. At the end of the 1980s, as in other communist ruled States in Europe, there was a demand for ending the communist party’s exclusive control over the government. By early 1990, non-communist had come to power in most of the republics of Yugoslavia. In the meantime, many republics had started demanding independence. By early 1992, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Bosnia – Herzegovina had declared their independence and Serbia and Montenegro together formed the new state of Yugoslavia.