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Fall of communism

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Fall of communism

"Fall of Communism" redirects here. For the fall of the Soviet Union, see Dissolution of the Soviet Union.

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The Revolutions of 1989 (also known as the Fall of Communism, the Collapse of Communism, the Revolutions of Central and Eastern Europe[1] and the Autumn of Nations[2]) were the revolutions which overthrew the communist states in various Central and Eastern European countries.

The events began in Poland in 1989,[3][4] and continued in Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Romania. One feature common to most of these developments was the extensive use of campaigns of civil resistance demonstrating popular opposition to the continuation of one-party rule and contributing to the pressure for change.[5] Romania was the only Eastern Bloc country whose people overthrew its Communist regime violently;[6] however, in Romania itself and in some other places, there was some violence inflicted by the regime upon the population. The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 failed to stimulate major political changes in China. However, powerful images of courageous defiance during that protest helped to spark a precipitation of events in other parts of the globe. Among the famous anti-Communist revolutions was the fall of the Berlin Wall, which served as the symbolic gateway to German reunification in 1990.

The Soviet Union was dissolved by the end of 1991, resulting in 14 countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan) declaring their independence from the Soviet Union and the bulk of the country being succeeded by the Russian Federation. Communism was abandoned in Albania and Yugoslavia between 1990 and 1992, the latter splitting into five successor states by 1992: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Republic of Macedonia, Slovenia, and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (later renamed Serbia and Montenegro, and later still split into two states, Serbia and Montenegro). Serbia was then further split with the breakaway of the partially recognized state of Kosovo. Czechoslovakia too was dissolved three years after the end of communist rule, splitting peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992.[7] The impact was felt in dozens of Socialist countries. Communism was abandoned in countries such as Cambodia, Ethiopia, Mongolia and South Yemen. The collapse of Communism led commentators to declare the end of the Cold War.

The adoption of varying forms of market economy immediately resulted in a general decline in living standards,[8] birth rates and life expectancies in post-Communist States, together with side effects including the rise of business oligarchs in countries such as Russia, and highly disproportional social and economic development. Political reforms were varied but in only five countries were Communist institutions able to keep for themselves a monopoly on power: China, Cuba, North Korea, Laos, and Vietnam. Many Communist and Socialist organisations in the West turned their guiding principles over to social democracy. The European political landscape was drastically changed, with numerous Eastern Bloc countries joining NATO and stronger European economic and social integration entailed.

The Revolutions of 1989 also coincided with a massive wave of international democratization: from a minority mostly restricted to the First World and India up until the mid-1980s, the electoral democracy became at least officially the political system of about half of the countries of the world by the early 1990s.


The Development of the Communist Bloc

Further information: Soviet Bloc, People's Republic of China and List of socialist countries

Ideas of Socialism had been gaining momentum among working class citizens of the world since the 19th century. These culminated in the early 20th century when several countries and subsequent nations formed their own Communist Parties. Many of the countries involved had monarchic governments and aristocratic social structures with an established nobility. Ordinarily, Socialism was undesirable within the circles of the ruling classes of the late 19th/early 20th century states; as such, Communist ideology was repressed – its champions suffered persecution while the nation on the whole was discouraged from adopting the mindset. This had been the practice even in the states which identified as exercising a multi-party system.

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 saw the multi-ethnic Soviets overturn a previously nationalist czarist state. The Bolsheviks comprised ethnicities of all entities which would compose the Soviet Union throughout its phases.

During the interwar period, Communism had been on the rise in many parts of the world (e.g. in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, it had grown popular in the urban areas throughout the 1920s). This led to a series of purges in many countries to stifle the movement.

Just as Communism had at some stage grown popular throughout the entities of Central and Eastern Europe, its image had also begun to tarnish at a later time all within the interwar period. As Socialist activists stepped up their campaigns against their oppressor regimes, they resorted to violence (including bombings and various other killings) to achieve their goal: this led large parts of the previously pro-Communist populace to lose interest in the ideology. A Communist presence forever remained in place however, but reduced from its earlier size.

After World War II, the Soviet Union had established a presence in a number of countries. There, they brought into power various Communist parties who were loyal to Moscow. The Soviets retained troops throughout the territories they had occupied. The Cold War saw these states, bound together by the Warsaw Pact, have continuing tensions with the capitalist west symbolized by NATO. Mao Zedong established communism in China in 1949.

During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, a spontaneous nationwide anti-authoritarian revolt, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary to assert control. In 1968, the USSR repressed the Prague Spring by organizing the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Emergence of Solidarity

Labour turmoil in Poland during 1980 had led to the formation of the independent trade union, Solidarity, led by Lech Wałęsa, which over time became a political force. On 13 December 1981, Communist leader Wojciech Jaruzelski started a crack-down on Solidarity, declaring martial law in Poland, suspending the union, and temporarily imprisoning all of its leaders.

Mikhail Gorbachev

Although several Eastern bloc countries had attempted some abortive, limited economic and political reform since the 1950s (Hungarian Revolution of 1956, Prague Spring of 1968), the advent of reform-minded Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 signaled the trend toward greater liberalization. During the mid-1980s, a younger generation of Soviet apparatchiks, led by Gorbachev, began advocating fundamental reform in order to reverse years of Brezhnev stagnation. The Soviet Union was facing a period of severe economic decline and needed Western technology and credits to make up for its increasing backwardness. The costs of maintaining its so-called "empire" – the military, KGB, subsidies to foreign client states – further strained the moribund Soviet economy.

The first signs of major reform came in 1986 when Gorbachev launched a policy of glasnost (openness) in the Soviet Union, and emphasized the need for perestroika (economic restructuring). By the spring of 1989, the Soviet Union had not only experienced lively media debate, but had also held its first multi-candidate elections in the newly established Congress of People's Deputies. Though glasnost advocated openness and political criticism, at the time, it was only permitted in accordance with the political views of the Communists. The general public in the Eastern bloc were still threatened by secret police and political repression.

Moscow's largest obstacle to improved political and economic relations with the Western powers remained the Iron Curtain that existed between East and West. As long as the specter of Soviet military intervention loomed over Central, South-East and Eastern Europe, it seemed unlikely that Moscow could attract the Western economic support needed to finance the country's restructuring. Gorbachev urged his Central and South-East European counterparts to imitate perestroika and glasnost in their own countries. However, while reformists in Hungary and Poland were emboldened by the force of liberalization spreading from East to West, other Eastern bloc countries remained openly skeptical and demonstrated aversion to reform. Past experiences had demonstrated that although reform in the Soviet Union was manageable, the pressure for change in Central and South-East Europe had the potential to become uncontrollable. These regimes owed their creation and continued survival to Soviet-style authoritarianism, backed by Soviet military power and subsidies. Believing Gorbachev's reform initiatives would be short-lived, orthodox Communist rulers like East Germany's Erich Honecker, Bulgaria's Todor Zhivkov, Czechoslovakia's Gustáv Husák, and Romania’s Nicolae Ceauşescu obstinately ignored the calls for change.[9] "When your neighbor puts up new wallpaper, it doesn't mean you have to too," declared one East German politburo member.[10]

Solidarity's impact grows

Throughout the mid-1980s, Solidarity persisted solely as an underground organization, supported by the Catholic Church. However, by the late 1980s, Solidarity became sufficiently strong to frustrate Jaruzelski's attempts at reform, and nationwide strikes in 1988 forced the government to open a dialogue with Solidarity. On 9 March 1989, both sides agreed to a bicameral legislature called the National Assembly. The already existing Sejm would become the lower house. The Senate would be elected by the people. Traditionally a ceremonial office, the presidency was given more powers[11] (Polish Round Table Agreement).

By 1989, the Soviet Union had repealed the Brezhnev Doctrine in favor of non-intervention in the internal affairs of its Warsaw Pact allies, termed the Sinatra Doctrine in a joking reference to the Frank Sinatra song "My Way". Poland became the first Warsaw Pact state country to break free of Soviet domination. Taking notice from Poland, Hungary was next to follow.

Tiananmen Square protests of 1989

New Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (in office 13 September 1982 – 2 November 1987), developed the concept of Socialism with Chinese characteristics local market economy around 1984, but the policy stalled.[12]

The first Chinese student demonstrations, which directly preceded the Beijing protests of 1989, took place in December 1986 in Hefei. The students called for campus elections, the chance to study abroad and greater availability of western pop culture. Their protests took advantage of the loosening political atmosphere and included rallies against the slow pace of reform. Chairman Hu Yaobang, a protégé of Deng Xiaoping and a leading advocate of reform, was blamed for the protests and forced to resign as the CCP General Secretary in January 1987. In the "Anti Bourgeois Liberalization Campaign", Hu would be further denounced.

The Tiananmen Square protests were sparked by the death of Hu Yaobang on 15 April 1989. By the eve of Hu's state funeral, some 100,000 students had gathered at Tiananmen square to observe it; however, no leaders emerged from the Great Hall. The movement lasted for seven weeks.[13]

Gorbachev's visit to China on 15 May during the protests brought many foreign news agencies to Beijing, and their sympathetic portrayals of the protesters helped galvanize a spirit of liberation among the Central, South-East and Eastern Europeans who were watching. The Chinese leadership, particularly Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang, having begun earlier than the Soviets to radically reform the economy, was open to political reform, but not at the cost of a potential return to the disorder of the Cultural Revolution.

The movement lasted from Hu's death on 15 April until tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989. In Beijing, the military response to the protest by the PRC government left many civilians in charge of clearing the square of the dead and severely injured. The exact number of casualties is not known and many different estimates exist.

On 7 July 1989 President Mikhail Gorbachev implicitly renounced the use of force against other Soviet-bloc nations. Speaking to members of the 23-nation Council of Europe, Mr. Gorbachev made no direct reference to the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine, under which Moscow has asserted the right to use force to prevent a Warsaw Pact member from leaving the Communist fold, but stated 'Any interference in domestic affairs and any attempts to restrict the sovereignty of states – friends, allies or any others – are inadmissible'.[14]


A wave of strikes hit Poland in April and May 1988, and a second wave began on 15 August 1988 when a strike broke out at the July Manifesto coal mine in Jastrzębie-Zdrój, the workers demanding the re-legalisation of Solidarity. Over the next few days sixteen other mines went on strike followed by a number of shipyards, including on 22 August the Gdansk Shipyard famous as the epicentre of the 1980 industrial unrest that spawned Solidarity.[15] On 31 August 1988 Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity, was invited to Warsaw by the Communist authorities who had finally agreed to talks.[16] On 18 January 1989 at a stormy session of the Tenth Plenary Session of the ruling Communist Party, General Jaruzelski managed to get party backing for formal negotiations with Solidarity leading to its future legalisation – although this was achieved only by threatening the resignation of the entire Communist Party leadership if thwarted.[17] On 6 February 1989 formal Round Table discussions began in the Hall of Columns in Warsaw. On 4 April 1989 the historic Round Table Agreement was signed legalising Solidarity and setting up partly free parliamentary elections to be held on 4 June 1989 (incidentally, the day following the midnight crackdown on Chinese protesters in Tiananmen Square). A political earthquake followed. The victory of Solidarity surpassed all predictions. Solidarity candidates captured all the seats they were allowed to compete for in the Sejm, while in the Senate they captured 99 out of the 100 available seats (with the one remaining seat taken by an independent candidate). At the same time, many prominent Communist candidates failed to gain even the minimum number of votes required to capture the seats that were reserved for them.

On 15 August 1989, the Communists' two longtime coalition partners, the United People's Party (ZSL) and the Democratic Party (SD), broke their alliance with the PZPR and announced their support for Solidarity. The last Communist Prime Minister of Poland, General Czeslaw Kiszczak, said he would resign to allow a non-Communist to form an administration.[18] As Solidarity was the only other political grouping that could possibly form a government virtually assured that a Solidarity member would become prime minister. On 19 August 1989 in a stunning watershed moment Tadeusz Mazowiecki, an anti-Communist editor, Solidarity supporter, and devout Catholic, was nominated as Prime Minister of Poland – and the Soviet Union voiced no protest, despite calls from hard-line Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu for the Warsaw Pact to intervene militarily to 'save socialism' as it had in Prague in 1968.[19] Five days later, on 24 August 1989, Poland's Parliament ended more than 40 years of one-party rule by making Mazowiecki the country's first non-Communist Prime Minister since the early postwar years. In a tense Parliament, Mr. Mazowiecki got 378 votes, with 4 against and 41 abstentions.[20] On 13 September 1989 a new non-Communist government was approved by parliament, the first of its kind in the former Eastern Bloc.[21] On 17 November 1989 the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, Polish founder of the Cheka and symbol of Communist oppression, was torn down in Bank Square, Warsaw.[22] On 29 December 1989 the Sejm amended the constitution to change the official name of the country from the People's Republic of Poland to the Republic of Poland. The communist Polish United Workers' Party dissolved itself on 29 January 1990, and transformed into Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland.[23]

In 1990, Jaruzelski resigned as Poland's president and was succeeded by Wałęsa, who won the 1990 presidential elections[23] held in two rounds on 25 November and 9 December. Wałęsa's inauguration as president on 21 December 1990 is thought by many to be the formal end of the Communist People's Republic of Poland and the beginning of the modern Republic of Poland. The Warsaw Pact was dissolved on 1 July 1991. On 27 October 1991 the first entirely free Polish parliamentary elections since the 1920s took place. This completed Poland's transition from Communist Party rule to a Western-style liberal democratic political system. The last Russian troops left Poland on 18 September 1993.[23]


Following Poland's lead, Hungary was next to revert to a non-Communist government. Although Hungary had achieved some lasting economic reforms and limited political liberalization during the 1980s, major reforms only occurred following the replacement of János Kádár as General Secretary of the Communist Party on 23 May 1988 with Karoly Grosz.[24] On 24 November 1988 Miklós Németh was appointed Prime Minister. On 12 January 1989, the Parliament adopted a "democracy package", which included trade union pluralism; freedom of association, assembly, and the press; a new electoral law; and a radical revision of the constitution, among others.[25] On 29 January 1989, contradicting the official view of history held for more than 30 years, a member of the ruling Politburo Imre Pozsgay declared that Hungary's 1956 rebellion was a popular uprising rather than a foreign-instigated attempt at counterrevolution.[26] Mass demonstrations on 15 March, the National Day, persuaded the regime to begin negotiations with the emergent non-Communist political forces. Round Table talks began on 22 April and continued until the Round Table agreement was signed on 18 September. The talks involved the Communists (MSzMP) and the newly emerging independent political forces Fidesz, the Alliance of Free Democrats (SzDSz), the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), the Independent Smallholders' Party, the Hungarian People’s Party, the Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Society, and the Democratic Trade Union of Scientific Workers. At a later stage the League of Free Trade Unions and the Christian Democratic People's Party (KNDP) were invited.[27] It was at the talks that a number of Hungary's future political leaders emerged, including László Sólyom, József Antall, György Szabad, Péter Tölgyessy and Viktor Orbán.[28]

On 2 May 1989, the first visible cracks in the Iron Curtain appeared when Hungary began dismantling its 150 mile long border fence with Austria.[29] This increasingly destabilized the GDR and Czechoslovakia over the summer and autumn as thousands of their citizens illegally crossed over to the West through the Hungarian-Austrian border. On 1 June 1989 the Communist Party admitted that former Prime Minister Imre Nagy, hanged for treason for his role in the 1956 Hungarian uprising, was executed illegally after a show trial.[30] On 16 June 1989 Nagy was given a solemn funeral on Budapest's largest square in front of crowds of at least 100,000, followed by a hero's burial.[31]

The Round Table agreement of 18 September encompassed six draft laws that covered an overhaul of the Constitution, establishment of a Constitutional Court, the functioning and management of political parties, multiparty elections for National Assembly deputies, the penal code and the law on penal procedures (the last two changes represented an additional separation of the Party from the state apparatus).[32][33] The electoral system was a compromise: about half of the deputies would be elected proportionally and half by the majoritarian system.[34] A weak presidency was also agreed upon, but no consensus was attained on who should elect the president (parliament or the people) and when this election should occur (before or after parliamentary elections). On 7 October 1989, the Communist Party at its last congress re-established itself as the Hungarian Socialist Party.[35] In a historic session from 16 to 20 October, the parliament adopted legislation providing for multi-party parliamentary elections and a direct presidential election, which took place on March 24, 1990.[36] The legislation transformed Hungary from a People's Republic into the Republic of Hungary, guaranteed human and civil rights, and created an institutional structure that ensured separation of powers among the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government.[37] The Soviet military occupation of Hungary, which had persisted since World War II, ended on 19 June 1991.

East Germany

Main article: Die Wende
Main article: Peaceful Revolution

On 4 May 1989, Hungary started dismantling its barbed wire border with Austria, opening a large hole through the iron curtain to the West that was used by a growing number of East Germans. By the end of September 1989, more than 30,000 East Germans had escaped to the West before the GDR denied travel to Hungary, leaving the CSSR (Czechoslovakia) as the only neighboring state where East Germans could escape to. Thousands of East Germans tried to reach the West by occupying the West German diplomatic facilities in other Central and Eastern European capitals, notably the Prague Embassy and the Hungarian Embassy where thousands camped in the muddy garden from August to November waiting for German political reform. The GDR closed the border to the CSSR on 3 October, thereby isolating itself from all neighbors. Having been shut off from their last chance for escape, an increasing number of East Germans participated in the Monday demonstrations in Leipzig on 4, 11, and 18 September, each attracting 1,200 to 1,500 demonstrators; many were arrested and beaten. However, the people refused to be intimidated. The 25 September demonstration attracted 8,000 demonstrators.

After the fifth successive Monday demonstration in Leipzig on 2 October attracted 10,000 protesters, Socialist Unity Party (SED) leader Erich Honecker issued a shoot and kill order to the military.[38] Communists prepared a huge police, militia, Stasi, and work-combat troop presence and there were rumors a Tiananmen Square-style massacre was being planned for the following Monday's demonstration on 9 October.[39]

On 6 and 7 October, Mikhail Gorbachev visited East Germany to mark the 40th anniversary of the German Democratic Republic, and urged the East German leadership to accept reform. A famous quote of his is rendered in German as "Wer zu spät kommt, den bestraft das Leben" (He who is too late is punished by life). However, Honecker remained opposed to internal reform, with his regime even going so far as forbidding the circulation of Soviet publications that it viewed as subversive.

In spite of rumours that the Communists were planning a massacre on 9 October an incredible 70,000 citizens demonstrated in Leipzig that Monday. The authorities on the ground refused to open fire. This victory of the people facing down the Communists guns encouraged more and more citizens to take to the streets. The following Monday on 16 October 120,000 people demonstrated on the streets of Leipzig.

Faced with this ongoing civil unrest, the SED deposed Honecker on 18 October and replaced him with the number-two man in the regime, Egon Krenz. However, the demonstrations kept growing – on Monday 23 October the Leipzig protesters numbered 300,000 and remained as large the following week. The border to Czechoslovakia was opened again on 1 November, but the Czechoslovak authorities soon let all East Germans travel directly to West Germany without further bureaucratic ado, thus lifting their part of the Iron Curtain on 3 November. On 4 November the authorities decided to authorize a demonstration in Berlin and were faced with the Alexanderplatz demonstration where half a million citizens converged on the capital demanding freedom in the biggest protest the GDR ever witnessed. Unable to stem the ensuing flow of refugees to the West through Czechoslovakia, the East German authorities eventually caved in to public pressure by allowing East German citizens to enter West Berlin and West Germany directly, via existing border points, on 9 November 1989, without having properly briefed the border guards. Triggered by the erratic words of regime spokesman Günter Schabowski in a TV press conference, stating that the planned changes were in effect "immediately, without delay," hundreds of thousands of people took advantage of the opportunity. The guards were caught by surprise; unwilling to use force, they let the crowds through. Soon new crossing points were forced open in the Berlin Wall by the people, and sections of the wall literally torn down as this symbol of oppression was overwhelmed. The bewildered guards were unaware of what was happening, and meekly stood by as the East Germans tore down large chunks of the wall.

On 13 November GDR Prime Minister Willi Stoph and his entire cabinet resigned. A new government was formed under a considerably more liberal Communist, Hans Modrow. On 1 December the Volkskammer removed the SED's leading role from the constitution of the GDR. On 3 December Krenz resigned as leader of the SED; he resigned as head of state three days later. On 7 December Round Table talks opened between the SED and other political parties. On 16 December 1989 the SED was dissolved and refounded as the SED-PDS, abandoning Marxism-Leninism and becoming a mainstream democratic socialist party.

On 15 January 1990 the Stasi's headquarters was stormed by protesters. Modrow became the de facto leader of East Germany until free elections were held on 18 March 1990—the first held in that part of Germany since 1933. The SED, renamed the Party of Democratic Socialism, was heavily defeated. Lothar de Maizière of the East German Christian Democratic Union became Prime Minister on 4 April 1990 on a platform of speedy reunification with the West. The two Germanies were reunified on 3 October 1990.

The Kremlin's willingness to abandon such a strategically vital ally marked a dramatic shift by the Soviet superpower and a fundamental paradigm change in international relations, which until 1989 had been dominated by the East-West divide running through Berlin itself. The last Russian troops left the territory of the former GDR on 1 September 1994.


Main article: Velvet Revolution

The "Velvet Revolution" was a non-violent revolution in Czechoslovakia that saw the overthrow of the Communist government. On 17 November 1989 (Friday), riot police suppressed a peaceful student demonstration in Prague. That event sparked a series of popular demonstrations from 19 November to late December. By 20 November the number of peaceful protesters assembled in Prague had swelled from 200,000 the previous day to an estimated half-million. Four days later, the entire Communist Party leadership, including general secretary Miloš Jakeš, resigned. A two-hour general strike, involving all citizens of Czechoslovakia, was successfully held on 27 November.

With the collapse of other Communist governments, and increasing street protests, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia announced on 28 November 1989 that it would relinquish power and dismantle the single-party state. Barbed wire and other obstructions were removed from the border with West Germany and Austria in early December. On 10 December, President Gustáv Husák appointed the first largely non-Communist government in Czechoslovakia since 1948, and resigned. Alexander Dubček was elected speaker of the federal parliament on 28 December and Václav Havel the President of Czechoslovakia on 29 December 1989. In June 1990 Czechoslovakia held its first democratic elections since 1946. On 27 June 1991 the last Soviet troops were withdrawn from Czechoslovakia.[40]


In October and November 1989 demonstrations on ecological issues were staged in Sofia, where demands for political reform were also voiced. The demonstrations were suppressed, but on 10 November 1989 – the day after the Berlin Wall was breached – Bulgaria's long-serving leader Todor Zhivkov was ousted by his Politburo. He was succeeded by a considerably more liberal Communist, former foreign minister Petar Mladenov. Moscow apparently approved the leadership change, as Zhivkov had been opposed to Gorbachev's policies. The new regime immediately repealed restrictions on free speech and assembly, which led to the first mass demonstration on 17 November, as well as the formation of anti-communist movements. Nine of them united as the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) on 7 December.[41] The UDF was not satisfied with Zhivkov's ouster, and demanded additional democratic reforms, most importantly the removal of the constitutionally mandated leading role of the Bulgarian Communist Party.

Bowing to the inevitable, Mladenov announced on 11 December 1989 that the Communist Party would abandon its monopoly on power, and that multiparty elections would be held the following year. In February 1990, the Bulgarian legislature deleted the portion of the constitution about the "leading role" of the Communist Party. Eventually, it was decided that a round table on the Polish model would be held in 1990 and elections held by June 1990. The round table took place from 3 January to 14 May 1990, at which an agreement was reached on the transition to democracy. The Communist Party abandoned Marxism-Leninism in April 1990 and renamed itself as the Bulgarian Socialist Party. In June 1990 the first free elections since 1939 were held, won by the Bulgarian Socialist Party.


Main article: Romanian Revolution of 1989

After having survived the Braşov Rebellion in 1987, Nicolae Ceauşescu was re-elected for another five years as leader of the Romanian Communist Party in November 1989, signalling that he intended to ride out the anti-Communist uprisings sweeping the rest of Europe. As Ceauşescu prepared to go on a state visit to Iran, his Securitate ordered the arrest and exile of a local Hungarian Calvinist minister, László Tőkés, on 16 December, for sermons offending the regime. Tőkés was seized, but only after serious rioting erupted. Timişoara was the first city to react, on 16 December, and civil unrest continued for 5 days.

Returning from Iran, Ceauşescu ordered a mass rally in his support outside Communist Party headquarters in Bucharest on 21 December. However, to his shock, the crowd booed and jeered him as he spoke. Years of repressed dissatisfaction boiled to the surface throughout the Romanian populace and even among elements in Ceauşescu's own government, and the demonstrations spread throughout the country.

At first the security forces obeyed Ceauşescu's orders to shoot protesters. However, on the morning of 22 December, the Romanian military suddenly changed sides. This came after it was announced that defense minister Vasile Milea had committed suicide after being unmasked as a traitor. Believing Milea had actually been murdered, the rank-and-file soldiers went over virtually en masse to the revolution. Army tanks began moving towards the Central Committee building with crowds swarming alongside them. The rioters forced open the doors of the Central Committee building in an attempt to capture Ceauşescu and his wife, Elena, coming within a few meters of the couple. However, they managed to escape via a helicopter waiting for them on the roof of the building. The revolution resulted in 1,104 deaths. Unlike its kindred parties in the Warsaw Pact, the PCR simply melted away; no present-day Romanian party claiming to be its successor has ever been elected to the legislature since the change of system.

Although elation followed the flight of the Ceauşescus, uncertainty surrounded their fate. On Christmas Day, Romanian television showed the Ceauşescus facing a hasty trial, and then undergoing summary execution. An interim National Salvation Front Council led by Ion Iliescu took over and announced elections for April 1990 – the first free elections held in Romania since 1937. However, they were postponed until 20 May 1990.

Malta Summit

The Malta Summit consisted of a meeting between U.S. President George H. W. Bush and U.S.S.R. leader Mikhail Gorbachev, taking place between 2–3 December 1989, just a few weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a meeting which contributed to the end of the Cold War partially as a result of the broader pro-democracy movement. It was their second meeting following a meeting that included then President Ronald Reagan, in New York in December 1988. News reports of the time referred to the Malta Summit as the most important since 1945, when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Soviet premier Joseph Stalin and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed on a post-war plan for Europe at the Yalta Conference.

Election chronology in Central and Eastern Europe 1989-1991

Between the spring of 1989 and the spring of 1991 every Communist or former communist Central and Eastern European country, and in the case of the USSR and Yugoslavia every constituent republic, held competitive parliamentary elections for the first time in many decades. Some elections were only partly free, others fully democratic. The chronology below gives the details of these historic elections; the date is the first day of voting as several elections were spilt over several days for run-off contests:

Albania and Yugoslavia

Template:Eastern Bloc sidebar

Breakup of Yugoslavia

The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was not a part of the Warsaw Pact but pursued its own version of "Communism" under Josip Broz Tito. It was a multi-ethnic state which Tito was able to maintain through a doctrine of "Brotherhood and unity", but tensions between ethnicities began to escalate with the so-called Croatian Spring of 1970–71, a movement for greater Croatian autonomy, which was suppressed. In 1974 there followed constitutional changes, and the 1974 Yugoslav Constitution devolved some of the federal powers to the constituent republics and provinces. After Tito's death in 1980 ethnic tensions grew, first in Albanian-majority SAP Kosovo with the 1981 protests in Kosovo. In late 1980s Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević used the Kosovo crisis to stoke up Serb nationalism and attempt to consolidate and dominate the country, which alienated the other ethnic groups.

Parallel to the same process, SR Slovenia witnessed a policy of gradual liberalization since 1984, somewhat similar to the Soviet Perestroika. This provoked tensions between the League of Communists of Slovenia on one side, and the central Yugoslav Party and the federal army on the other side. By the late 1980s, many civil society groups were pushing towards democratization, while widening the space for cultural plurality. In 1987 and 1988, a series of clashes between the emerging civil society and the Communist regime culminated with the so-called Slovene Spring, a mass movement for democratic reforms. The Committee for the Defence of Human Rights was established as the platform of all major non-Communist political movements. By early 1989, several anti-Communist political parties were already openly functioning, challenging the hegemony of the Slovenian Communists. Soon, the Slovenian Communists, pressured by their own civil society, came into conflict with the Serbian Communist leadership.

In January 1990, an extraordinary Congress of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia was called in order to settle the disputes among its constituent parties. Faced with being completely outnumbered, the Slovenian and Croatian Communists walked out of the Congress on 23 January 1990, thus effectively bringing to an end the Yugoslav Communist Party. Both parties of the two western republics negotiated free multi-party elections with their own opposition movements.

On 8 April 1990, the democratic and anti-Yugoslav DEMOS coalition won the elections in Slovenia, while on 24 April 1990 the Croatian elections witnessed the landslide victory of the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) led by Franjo Tuđman. The results were much more balanced in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia in November 1990, while the parliamentary and presidential elections of December 1990 in Serbia and Montenegro consolidated the power of Milošević and his supporters. Free elections on the level of the federation were never carried out.

The Slovenian and Croatian leaderships started preparing plans for secession from the federation, while the Serbs of Croatia organized the so-called Log Revolution, an insurrection that would lead to the creation of the breakaway region of SAO Krajina. In the Slovenian independence referendum on 23 December 1990, 88.5% of residents voted for independence.[42] In the Croatian independence referendum, on 2 May 1991, 93.24% voted for independence.

The escalating ethnic and national tensions were exacerbated by the drive for independence and led to the following Yugoslav wars:

In addition, the insurgency in the Preševo Valley (1999–2001) and the insurgency in the Republic of Macedonia (2001) are also often discussed in the same context.[43][44][45]

Fall of Communism in Albania

Main article: Fall of Communism in Albania

In the Socialist People's Republic of Albania, Enver Hoxha, who led Albania for four decades, died 11 April 1985. His successor, Ramiz Alia, began to gradually open up the regime from above. In 1989, the first revolts started in Shkodra and spread in other cities. Eventually, the existing regime introduced some liberalization, including measures in 1990 providing for freedom to travel abroad. Efforts were begun to improve ties with the outside world. March 1991 elections—the first free elections in Albania since 1923, and only the third free elections in the country's history—left the former Communists in power, but a general strike and urban opposition led to the formation of a coalition cabinet including non-Communists. Albania's former Communists were routed in elections March 1992, amid economic collapse and social unrest.

Dissolution of the Soviet Union

Main article: Dissolution of the Soviet Union

On 1 July 1991, the Warsaw Pact was officially dissolved at a meeting in Prague. At a summit later that same month, Gorbachev and Bush declared a US–Soviet strategic partnership, decisively marking the end of the Cold War. President Bush declared that US–Soviet cooperation during the 1990–91 Gulf War had laid the groundwork for a partnership in resolving bilateral and world problems.

As the Soviet Union rapidly withdrew its forces from Central and Southeast Europe, the spillover from the 1989 upheavals began reverberating throughout the Soviet Union itself. Agitation for self-determination led to first Lithuania, and then Estonia, Latvia and Armenia declaring independence. Disaffection in other Soviet republics, such as Georgia and Azerbaijan, was countered by promises of greater decentralization. More open elections led to the election of candidates opposed to Communist Party rule.

Glasnost had inadvertently released the long-suppressed national sentiments of all peoples within the borders of the multinational Soviet state. These nationalist movements were further strengthened by the rapid deterioration of the Soviet economy, whose ramshackle foundations were exposed with the removal of Communist discipline. Gorbachev's reforms had failed to improve the economy, with the old Soviet command structure completely breaking down. One by one, the constituent republics created their own economic systems and voted to subordinate Soviet laws to local laws.

In an attempt to halt the rapid changes to the system, a group of Soviet hard-liners represented by Vice-President Gennadi Yanayev launched a coup attempting to overthrow Gorbachev in August 1991. Boris Yeltsin, then president of the Russian SFSR, rallied the people and much of the army against the coup and the effort collapsed. Although restored to power, Gorbachev's authority had been irreparably undermined. In September, the Baltic states were granted independence. Later that month, Gorbachev resigned as leader of the Communist Party, and the Supreme Soviet indefinitely suspended all party activities on Soviet soil.

Over the next three months, one republic after another declared independence, mostly out of fear of another coup. Also during this time, Russia began taking over what remained of the Soviet government, including the Kremlin. The penultimate step came on 1 December, when voters in the second most powerful republic, Ukraine, overwhelmingly voted to secede from the Soviet Union in a referendum. This ended any realistic chance of keeping the Soviet Union together. On 8 December, Yeltsin met with his counterparts from Ukraine and Belarus and signed the Belavezha Accords, declaring that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. Gorbachev denounced this as illegal, but he had long since lost any ability to influence events outside of Moscow.

Two weeks later, 11 of the remaining 12 republics—all except Georgia—signed the Alma-Ata Protocol, which confirmed the Soviet Union had been effectively dissolved and replaced by a new voluntary association, the Commonwealth of Independent States. Bowing to the inevitable, Gorbachev resigned as Soviet president on 25 December, and the Supreme Soviet dissolved itself the next day. By the end of 1991, the few Soviet institutions that hadn't been taken over by Russia had dissolved. The Soviet Union was officially disbanded, breaking up into fifteen constituent parts, thereby ending the world's largest and most influential Communist state, and leaving China to that position. A constitutional crisis devolved into violence in Moscow as the Russian Army was called in to reestablish order.

Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania

Main article: Singing Revolution

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania implemented democratic reforms and achieved independence from the Soviet Union.

The Singing Revolution is a commonly used name for events between 1987 and 1991 that led to the restoration of the independence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.[46][47] The term was coined by an Estonian activist and artist, Heinz Valk, in an article published a week after the 10–11 June 1988 spontaneous mass night-singing demonstrations at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds.[48] Lithuania declared its independence on 11 March 1990. On 30 March, Estonia announced the start of a transitional period to independence, and Latvia followed suit a few days later. These declarations were met with force from the Soviet Union in early 1991, in confrontations known as "The Barricades" in Latvia and the "January Events" in Lithuania. The Baltic states contended that their incorporation into the Soviet Union had been illegal under both international law and their own law, and they were reasserting an independence that still legally existed.

Soon after the launching of the August coup, Estonia and Latvia declared full independence. By the time the coup was foiled, the USSR was no longer unified enough to mount a forceful resistance, and it recognized the independence of the Baltic states on 6 September.

Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova

In Belarus, a new postcommunist leader Alexander Lukashenko has obtained power. After a short period he increased his power as a result of coup d'état (1995-1996) and has been criticized for repressing political opposition ever since.

Moldova – Participated in the War of Transnistria between Moldova and Russian-connected forces. Communists came back to power in a 2001 election under Vladimir Voronin, but faced civil unrest in 2009 over accusation of rigged elections.

Ukraine – Ukraine declared its independence in August 1991. Presidencies of former Communists Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma were followed by the Orange Revolution in 2004, in which Ukrainians elected Viktor Yushchenko (also former member of CPSU).

Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan

Georgia and the North Caucasus have been marred by ethnic and sectarian violence since the collapse of the USSR. In April 1989 the Soviet Army massacred demonstrators in Tbilisi. By November 1989, the Georgian SSR officially condemned the Russian invasion in 1921 and continuing genocidal occupation. Democracy activist Zviad Gamsakhurdia served as president from 1991 to 1992. Russia aided break-away republics in wars in South Ossetia and Abkhazia during the early 1990s, conflicts that have periodically reemerged, and Russia has accused Georgia of supporting Chechen rebels during the Chechen wars. A coup d'état installed former Communist leader Eduard Shevardnadze as President of Georgia until the Rose Revolution in 2003.

In Armenia, the independence struggle included violence. The Nagorno-Karabakh War was fought between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia became increasingly militarized (with the ascendancy of Kocharian, a former president of Nagorno-Karabakh, often viewed as a milestone), while elections have since been increasingly controversial, and government corruption became more rife. After Kocharyan, notably, Serzh Sargsyan ascended to power. Sargsyan is often noted as the "founder of the Armenian and Karabakh militaries" and was, in the past, defense minister and national security minister.

In Azerbaijan the Azerbaijani Popular Front Party won first elections with the self-described pro-Western, populist nationalist Elchibey. However, Elchibey planned to end Moscow's advantage in the harvesting of Azeri oil and build much stronger links with Turkey and Europe, and as a result was overthrown by former Communists in a coup backed by Russia and Iran (which viewed the new country as a compelling threat, with territorial ambitions within Iranian borders and also being a strong economic rival). Mutallibov rose to power, but he was soon destabilized and eventually ousted due to popular frustration with his perceived incompetence, corruption and improper handling of the war with Armenia. Azerbaijani KGB and Azerbaijani SSR leader Heydar Aliyev captured power and remained president until he transferred the presidency to his son in 2003. The Nagorno-Karabakh War was fought between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and has largely defined the fates of both countries. However, unlike Armenia, which remains a strong Russian ally, Azerbaijan has begun, since Russia's 2008 war with Georgia, to foster better relations with Turkey and other Western nations, while cutting ties with Russia, including its CIS membership.


In Chechnya, using tactics partly copied from the Baltics, Anti-Communist coalition forces led by former Soviet general Dzhokhar Dudayev staged a largely bloodless revolution, and ended up forcing the resignation of the Communist republican president. Dudayev was elected in a landslide in the following election and in November 1991 he proclaimed Checheno-Ingushetia's independence as the Republic of Ichkeria. Ingushetia voted to leave the union with Chechnya, and was allowed to do so (thus it became the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria). Due to his desire to exclude Moscow from all oil deals, Yeltsin backed a failed coup against him in 1993. In 1994, Chechnya, with only marginal recognition (one country: Georgia, which was revoked soon after the coup landing Shevardnadze in power), was invaded by Russia, spurring the First Chechen War. The Chechens, with considerable assistance from the populations of both former-Soviet countries and from Sunni Muslim countries repelled this invasion and a peace treaty was signed in 1997. However, Chechnya became increasingly anarchic, largely due to the both political and physical destruction of the state during the invasion, and general Shamil Basaev, having evaded all control by the central government, conducted raids into neighboring Dagestan, which Russia used as pretext for reinvading Ichkeria. Ichkeria was then reincorporated into Russia as Chechnya again, though fighting continues.

Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan

In Kazakhstan, the independence struggle began with the Jeltoqsan uprising in 1986. Former Communist leader Nursultan Nazarbayev has been in power since 1990 when he started serving as President of Kazakh SSR.

In Kyrgyzstan, former Communist leader Askar Akayev retained power until the Tulip Revolution in 2005.

In Tajikistan, former Communist leader Rahmon Nabiyev retained power, which led to the civil war in Tajikistan. Emomalii Rahmon has succeeded Nabiyev and has retained power since 1992.

In Turkmenistan, former Communist leader Saparmurat Niyazov retained power until his death 2006 and has been criticized as one of the world's most totalitarian and repressive leaders, maintaining his own cult of personality.

In Uzbekistan, former Communist leader Islam Karimov retained power and has been criticized for repressing the political opposition ever since.

Post-Soviet conflicts

Moscow was involved in a number of conflicts, including the Nagorno-Karabakh War, the War of Transnistria, the 1991–1992 South Ossetia War, the First Chechen War, the War in Abkhazia (1992–1993), the Ossetian–Ingush conflict, and the Crimea conflict in Ukraine.

Other events

Communist and Socialist countries

Reforms in the Soviet Union and its allied countries also saw dramatic changes to Communist and Socialist states outside of Europe.


Middle East


Latin America

Other countries

Many Soviet-supported political parties and militant groups around the world suffered from demoralization and loss of financing.

Concurrently, many anti-Communist authoritarian states, formerly supported by the US, gradually saw a transition to democracy.

Political reforms

Main article: Decommunization

Decommunization is a process of overcoming the legacies of the Communist state establishments, culture, and psychology in the post-Communist states.

Decommunization was largely limited or non-existent. Communist parties were not outlawed and their members were not brought to trial. Just a few places even attempted to exclude members of communist secret services from decision-making. In a number of countries the Communist party simply changed its name and continued to function.[50]

In several European countries, however, endorsing or attempting to justify crimes committed by Nazi or Communist regimes will be punishable by up to 3 years of imprisonment.[51]

Economic reforms

Enterprises in Socialist countries had little or no interest in producing what customers wanted because of prevailing shortages of goods and services.[52] In the early 1990s, a popular refrain stated that "there is no precedent for moving from Socialism to capitalism."[53] Only the over-60-year-old people remembered how a market economy worked. It was not hard to imagine Central, South-East and Eastern Europe staying poor for decades.[54]

There was a temporary fall of output in official economy and increase in unofficial economy.[52] Countries implemented different reform programs such as the Balcerowicz Plan in Poland. Eventually the official economy began to grow.[52]

In 2004 Polish Nobel Peace Prize winner and President Lech Wałęsa described a transition from capitalism to Communism as "heating up an aquarium with fish" to get fish soup. He said that reversing Communism to capitalism was challenging, but "We can already see some little fish swimming in our aquarium."[55]

In a 2007 paper Oleh Havrylyshyn categorized the speed of reforms in the Soviet Bloc:[53]

  • Sustained Big-Bang (fastest): Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia
  • Advance Start/Steady Progress: Croatia, Hungary, Slovenia
  • Aborted Big-Bang: Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Kyrgyzstan, Russia
  • Gradual Reforms: Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Tajikistan, Romania
  • Limited Reforms (slowest): Belarus, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan

It was concluded that gradual reformers suffered more social pain, not less. The countries with fastest transition to market economy performed much better on the Human Development Index.[53]

The 2004 enlargement of the European Union included Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia. The 2007 enlargement of the European Union included Romania and Bulgaria. The same countries have also become NATO members.

Chinese economic liberalization started since 1978 have helped lift millions of people out of poverty, bringing the poverty rate down from 53% of the population in the Mao era to 12% in 1981. Deng's economic reforms are still being followed by the CPC today and by 2001 the poverty rate became only 6% of the population.[56]

Economic liberalization in Vietnam was initiated in 1986, following Chinese example.

Economic liberalization in India was initiated in 1991.

Harvard University Professor Richard B. Freeman has called the effect of reforms "The Great Doubling". He calculated that the size of global workforce doubled from 1.46 billion workers to 2.93 billion workers.[57][58] An immediate effect was a reduced ratio of capital to labor. In the long term China, India, and the former Soviet bloc will save and invest and contribute to the expansion of the world capital stock.[58]

China's rapid growth has led some people to predict a "Chinese Century".[59][60][61]

Ideological continuation of communism

Compared with the efforts of the other former constituents of the Soviet bloc and the Soviet Union, decommunization in Russia has been restricted to half-measures, if conducted at all.[62] As of 2008, nearly half of Russians view Stalin positively, and many support restoration of his monuments dismantled in the past.[63][64] Neo-Stalinist material such as describing Stalin's mass murder campaigns as "entirely rational" has been pushed into Russian textbooks.[65]

In 1992, President Yeltsin's government invited Vladimir Bukovsky to serve as an expert to testify at the CPSU trial by Constitutional Court of Russia, where the Communists were suing Yeltsin for banning their party. The respondent's case was that the CPSU itself had been an unconstitutional organization. To prepare for his testimony, Bukovsky requested and was granted access to a large number of documents from Soviet archives (then reorganized into TsKhSD). Using a small handheld scanner and a laptop computer, he managed to secretly scan many documents (some with high security clearance), including KGB reports to the Central Committee, and smuggle the files to the West.[66] The event that many expected would be another Nuremberg Trial and the beginnings of reconciliation with the Communist past, ended up in half-measures: while the CPSU was found unconstitutional, the Communists were allowed to form new parties in the future. Bukovsky expressed his deep disappointment with this in his writings and interviews: "Having failed to finish off conclusively the Communist system, we are now in danger of integrating the resulting monster into our world. It may not be called Communism anymore, but it retained many of its dangerous characteristics... Until the Nuremberg-style tribunal passes its judgment on all the crimes committed by Communism, it is not dead and the war is not over."[67]


The events caught many by surprise. Predictions of the Soviet Union's impending demise had been often dismissed.[68]

Bartlomiej Kaminski's book The Collapse Of State Socialism argued that the state Socialist system has a lethal paradox: "policy actions designed to improve performance only accelerate its decay".[69]

By the end of 1989, revolts had spread from one capital to another, ousting the regimes imposed on Central, South-East and Eastern Europe after World War II. Even the isolationist Stalinist regime in Albania was unable to stem the tide. Gorbachev's abrogation of the Brezhnev Doctrine was perhaps the key factor that enabled the popular uprisings to succeed. Once it became evident that the feared Red Army would not intervene to crush dissent, the Central, South-East and Eastern European regimes were exposed as vulnerable in the face of popular uprisings against the one-party system and power of secret police.

Coit D. Blacker wrote in 1990 that the Soviet leadership "appeared to have believed that whatever loss of authority the Soviet Union might suffer in Central and South-East Europe would be more than offset by a net increase in its influence in western Europe."[70] Nevertheless, it is unlikely that Gorbachev ever intended for the complete dismantling of Communism and the Warsaw Pact. Rather, Gorbachev assumed that the Communist parties of Central and South-East Europe could be reformed in a similar way to the reforms he hoped to achieve in the CPSU. Just as perestroika was aimed at making the Soviet Union more efficient economically and politically, Gorbachev believed that the Comecon and Warsaw Pact could be reformed into more effective entities. However, Alexander Yakovlev, a close advisor to Gorbachev, would later state that it would have been "absurd to keep the system" in Central and South-East Europe. Yakovlev had come to the conclusion that the Soviet-dominated Comecon could not work on non-market principles and that the Warsaw Pact had "no relevance to real life."[10]






Video of the revolutions in 1989

  • Revolutions footage

See also


This article incorporates information from the revision as of 1 April 2006 of the equivalent article on the polski World Heritage Encyclopedia.

Further reading

  • Contains chapters on the Soviet Union (Mark Kramer), Czechoslovakia (Kieran Williams), Poland (Alexander Smolar), Baltic States (Mark R. Beissinger), China (Merle Goldman), and East Germany (Charles Maier).

External links

  • The History of 1989: The Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe
  • Some of aspects of state national economy evolution in the system of the international economic order.
  • A look at the collapse of Eastern European Communism two decades later
  • Annotated Bibliography
  • (Dokumente und Schriften der Europäischen Akademie Otzenhausen. Band 112) Muenster, LIT Verlag, 2005, ISBN 3-8258-6909-1, S. 363–379 + Ergänzender Anhang A – F.
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