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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Eastern Europe and the fall of Communism

Eastern Europe
During the 1970s, although dissent continued, the threat of Soviet intervention under the Brezhnev Doctrine prevented any real liberalization in the nations of Eastern Europe. The reforms implemented by Gorbachev, however, gave new encouragement to democratic forces in the region. In 1989 a tide of democratic reform swept communist governments from power across Eastern Europe. The fall of communism, however, left new and serious problems in its wake.

The growth of dissent. During the 1970s the communist governments of Eastern Europe followed the Soviet lead and imposed repressive measures to end internal dissent. Even so, many people in Eastern Europe continued to voice their opposition to totalitarian rule. Anticommunist writers skirted government censors by issuing samizdat, or self-published editions of their work. Following the announcement of the Helsinki Accords in the late 1970s, dissidents in Czechoslovakia called on their government to abide by the human rights articles of the accords. Dissidents throughout Eastern Europe subsequently began to make similar demands.

In Poland, economic troubles during the 1970s fueled the growth of dissent. In 1980 huge price increases spawned a series ot labor strikes. Led by an unemployed electrician named Lech Walesa (lEK vah-LEN-suh) and a group of shipyard workers, the strikers demanded political and economic reforms. In response the government agreed to allow labor unions to organize outside of the Communist Party. An independent trade union, known as Solidarity, was then formed. Under Walesa’s leadership, Solidarity pressed for further concessions from the Polish government. Fearing Soviet invasion, however, the government refused and imposed martial law. Demonstrations in support of Solidarity continued nonetheless through the 1980s; these demonstrations eventually culminated in the downfall of the communist government following the spread of glasnost and perestroika into Eastern Europe.

Initially, both communist governments and dissidents in Eastern Europe were skeptical of Gorbachev’s reforms. Although they faced tremendous economic difficulties of their own, many Eastern European governments, controlled by old-guard communists, were uneasy about restructuring along Soviet lines. In Hungary, however, the government believed that Gorbachev’s economic reforms did not go far enough. Reaction among dissidents was also mixed at first. Many expressed outright disbelief, but in the end they overwhelmingly threw their support behind the new policies as the best hope of winning freedom. By the citizens of Eastern Europe were widely citing glasnost and perestroika as they demanded democratic reform.

The revolutions of 1989. In 1989 the growing pressure on the communist governments of Eastern Europe reached a critical level as demands for democratic reform swept uncontrollably across the entire region. Poland led the way. In April 1989 the Polish government legalized Solidarity. The result of this action was the election of Poland’s first noncommunist prime minister in more than 40 years. In 1990 the Communist Party was dissolved in Poland and replaced by two social democratic parties.

Other nations soon followed Poland’s example. In Czechoslovakia, people took to the streets of the capital to demand reform. The government tried to break up the demonstration by force, but the police began to join the demonstrators. Having lost the backing of its security forces, the Czech government quickly gave in to demands for reform. In December, only six weeks after the first demonstrations had begun, the national legislature selected Vaclav Havel, a playwright and former dissident leader, as the country’s new president. So smooth was the transition from communism in Czechoslovakia that people dubbed it the “Velvet Revolution.”

The transition to a non-communist government proved less peaceful in Romania. Ruled by the ruthless dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (chow-SHES-koo), the people of Romania suffered one of the most repressive regimes in Eastern Europe. Ceausescu tried to crush pro-reform demonstrations with a brutal crackdown by Romania’s secret police, but the demonstrators fought back. A brief civil war followed. By the end of the year, pro-democracy forces had captured Ceausescu, whom they executed for treason.

In East Germany the government came under increasing pressure throughout 1989 to open its borders. As communist governments in Czechoslovakia and Hungary loosened restrictions on their own borders with Western countries, many East Germans obtained permission to visit Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Once there, they fled to West Germany. Amid growing protest, the East German government agreed to open East Germany’s borders at midnight on November 9.

That night thousands of Berliners from East and West Germany alike assembled on either side of the infamous Berlin Wall perhaps the most powerful symbol of the Iron Curtain. On the stroke of midnight, they raced to break holes in the wall or to climb over it. More than any other event, the fall of the Berlin Wall came to symbolize the triumph over communist tyranny.

The aftermath of communism. The end of communist rule in Eastern Europe held the promise of greater prosperity but also left many problems in its wake. The new governments of Eastern Europe soon set about the task of implementing democratic reform. Many adopted free-enterprise reforms to boost their economies. In March 1991 the member countries of the Warsaw Pact voted to disband the alliance. Some governments hoped for closer cooperation with the West, and in 1997, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were invited to become members of NATO.

At the same time, serious problems afflicted many countries. Eastern Europe lost its largest trading partner with the fall of the Soviet Union, and inefficient industries and outmoded factories rendered many regional economies uncompetitive with the West. Rising energy costs added to the economic problems of Eastern Europe as the region also lost its cheap supply of fuel with the fall of the Soviet Union. On top of these problems, decades of communist rule had taken an especially heavy toll on the environment. By the late 1990s, Eastern Europe remained among the world’s most polluted regions.

Finally, the new freedoms that had been gained in Eastern Europe released old ethnic tensions. In 1992, Czechoslovakia split in two following the rise of a Slovak nationalist party in the eastern portion of the country. The result was the creation of the more prosperous Czech Republic and the poorer country of Slovakia. The breakup of Czechoslovakia came peacefully through the ballot box. Other areas were less fortunate. Massive civil unrest gripped Albania in the mid-1990s. In Yugoslavia, ethnic divisions produced one of the most hostile civil wars in the history of modem times.

Yugoslavia comprised' a patchwork of ethnic groups, including Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, Macedonians, and Albanians. Many Yugoslavs shared a mutually comprehensible language; the main distinctions ran along religious lines. The Serbs were predominantly Eastern Orthodox; the Croats and Slovenians were predominantly Roman Catholic. The single largest segment of the population in the central province of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which had once formed part of the Ottoman Empire, adhered to Islam. These divisions erupted in bloody conflict as anticommunist reform took hold in Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia began to unravel with the fall of communist governments across Eastern Europe. Serbia tried to exert dominance over the other groups, but the effect instead was to encourage Croatian and Slovenian nationalism. In 1991, Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence. As a result, bitter fighting broke out between Serbia and Croatia, ending in a truce that was mediated by the EEC and the United States. A UN peacekeeping force soon arrived to monitor the cease-fire. Though Croatia paid a high price for its demand for freedom, Slovenia had managed to escape the fighting. Both had secured independence, however. In 1992, Bosnia followed suit and declared its independence.

In Bosnia’s case, the greatest problem was the ethnic mix within the province. Muslims formed the single largest group, but they did not represent a majority. Nearly a third of Bosnia’s population identified themselves as Serbian, while 17 percent claimed Croatian descent. Led by Radovan Karadzic, many Bosnian Serbs wished to remain part of Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia. Receiving aid from the Yugoslavian government in Belgrade, Bosnian Serb military units engaged in a program of ethnic cleansing a campaign of terror and murder to drive Muslims out of those parts of Bosnia that the Bosnian Serbs claimed for themselves.

The United Nations imposed an arms embargo in an effort to end the fighting. The result harmed the Muslim-controlled Bosnian government’s ability to resist the better-armed Serbs. In response to repeated Serb attacks, the UN declared certain areas of Bosnia to be “safe havens” under the protection of UN forces. The UN then began an investigation of Serbian atrocities.

Serbian aggression continued nonetheless. Continued shelling of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, combined with Serbian attacks on UN “safe havens,” eventually prompted NATO to carry out extensive air strikes on Serbian targets in 1995.

The Bosnian Serbs agreed to enter peace talks mediated by the United States in Dayton, Ohio. The resulting agreement, known as the Dayton Accord, gave the Bosnian Serbs a degree of autonomy in certain areas, at the same time recognizing the overall sovereignty of Bosnia’s Muslim-led government. In December 1995, NATO sent a joint military Implementation Force, or IFOR, to Bosnia to enforce the new peace. IFOR included large numbers of American troops.

At first the peace established in Bosnia by the Dayton Accord seemed to be holding. Its survival, however, seemed to depend on the continued presence of foreign troops. The future of Bosnia, like that of much of Eastern Europe, remained uncertain as the 1900s drew to a close.


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