1989 Twenty Years On: The End of Communism and the Fate of Eastern Europe

Revolution, Then What?

The “revolutions of 1989” were not classic revolutions led by conspirators with visions of perfect society. They were the actions of individuals longing for change.

The 1989 events brought the end of communism and the Cold War. The results led to uneven socio-economic and political situations. Many citizens of the former communist countries questioned whether 1989 was really a success.

The eastern European nations wanted to rebuild their old democratic political systems, but they never fully achieved a clean break with the old Soviet regimes. “Reformed” communist parties renamed themselves “social-democrats” and continued to shape governments.

The people became disillusioned with political reform. Radical-authoritarian groups took advantage of this disappointment to promote extreme views of intolerance and spread paranoid conspiracy theories. Media empires served the interests of the political elites.

Relations with the West were also strained in the 1990s. The adoption of free-market economic mechanisms in eastern Europe failed to fulfill citizens’ visions of prosperity under capitalism. The West’s International Monetary Fund and World Bank dictated the terms of economic transitions. Long lines formed in front of western embassies in eastern European countries as citizens applied for travel permits. These immigrants flooded the West, causing crises both in their home countries and host societies. Westeners questioned the purpose of NATO, since communism fell with little bloodshed.

Eastern European countries experienced profound social transformations. Suspicious privatization deals and widespread corruption created distrust among the population. The working-class and rural populations saw their incomes decline while a new, capitalist elite emerged. The newly rich were often connected to the old communist regimes.

The gap between rich and poor created a sense of social marginalization in a society that was considered classless under communism. People lost their trust in democratic politicians. They missed the communist years of material security and full employment, so they voted for political parties of the former communist elites. Individuals with nationalist ideas also succeded in democratic elections, for example in Yugoslavia.

Making Sense of 1989 in 2009

The political, economic, and social transformations after the fall of communism created a crisis of values and authority in the new democracies.

The events of 1989 also had a significant global impact. They ended the Cold War and brought the demise of communist dictatorships in eastern Europe. Change occurred across the entire European continent.

Today’s younger generation never experienced communism. Eastern European youth are often disinterested in their parents’ stories. The fact that pre-1989 communist life was so quickly forgotten reflects the vast amount that eastern Europeans have changed since 1989.

The indifference of the new generation threatens them to fall prey to the past that limits its current choices.

Source: 1989 Twenty Years On: The End of Communism and the Fate of Eastern Europe
© 2019 Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective

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