1989: moment, legacy, future

How does the great uprising of 1989 look now, in the perspective of twenty years? Many questions still surround the events when “we the people” became the subjects of history in east-central Europe, the Berlin wall fell, the communist governments in the region disintegrated, and the cold war expired. What did people want, and have they got it? What and who made the change possible? Who benefited, who lost? Was it a “real” revolution (and is that a good or bad thing)? If it was not the end of history what was it the start of? Is it too early to be disappointed, or too late to be hopeful? The fact that 1989 was also the year of Tiananmen, the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Brazil’s return to democracy, and the Iranian fatwa emphasises both its pivotal character and its contemporary resonances. On the anniversary, openDemocracy writers from around the world reflect on 1989 and the world made in its shadow.
David Hayes
2 November 2009


Ivan Krastev, Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia

A political exhaustion

Ivan Krastev is chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria. He is visiting fellow of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna, from June-December 2009

Also by Ivan Krastev in openDemocracy:

"Sleepless in Szczecin: what's the matter with Poland?" (19 October 2007)

"Europe's trance of unreality" (20 June 2008)

"Europe's other legitimacy crisis" (23 July 2008)

"Russia and the Georgia war: the great-power trap" (19 August 2008)

"The guns of August: non-event with consequences" (30 July 2009)

1989 was "the best moment in European history" - or at least it used to be. In a 1999 reflection on the historical significance of central Europe's "velvet revolutions", Robert Cooper wrote that "the year 1989 divides the past from the future almost as clearly as the Berlin wall divided the east from the west." The west's victory in the cold war was a fivefold achievement: it meant the triumph of liberalism; the end of empire in Europe; the end of geopolitics (the "grand strategy"); the reunification of Europe; and the return of values-guided foreign policy.

Now, a decade further on, there is a growing ambiguity about the historical significance of 1989. Liberalism is in crisis (and the crisis is most severe in central Europe); the five-day Russia-Georgia war of August 2008 marked the return of geopolitics; Europe's unity is in question; Henry Kissinger's "realism" is back in fashion; and the global economic crisis has challenged the major assumptions of the post-1989 era.

The result of this ambiguity is that while, officially, "1989" is celebrated all over Europe, the fall of the Berlin wall is losing the meaning it had of (in Robert Cooper's formulation) establishing a clear dividing-line between the past and the future.

Indeed, it seems that the political energy of 1989 has both in the east and in the west of Europe been exhausted. Central Europe's new generation of political leaders (populists and technocrats alike) feel disconnected from the ideas and inheritance of the 1989 revolution. It is not their revolution. Populists prefer to seek legitimacy in the traditional (pre-second-world-war) nationalist narratives; the new generation of liberal pragmatists does not care about symbolic politics. The disconnection is felt by citizens too. A current survey suggests that only 14% of Hungarians believe that they have benefited from the change. What was meant to be the revolution of the people more and more looks like the emancipation of the elites.

The communist experience - and totalitarian experience in general - has lost its centrality for democracy's self-identification. The ideas of 1989 are perceived as irrelevant in the face of the emergence of new kinds of challenges: among them immigration, terrorism and climate change. It is symptomatic that in this twentieth-anniversary year a new bestseller entitled Reflections on the Revolution in Europe hit the continent's bookstores; but in contrast to Ralf Dahrendorf's classic 1990 pamphlet, Christopher Caldwell's title refers not to the events of 1989 but to the prospects of Europe's gradual Islamisation.

So, is it possible that 1979 - the year of Iran's Islamic revolution and of the beginning of China's economic reforms - will remain in history as the real modern turning-point, and 1989 will recede even further in significance? The fair answer is that we do not know. But it is not an exaggeration to claim that the degree to which 1989 has already faded is the clearest evidence of Europe's crisis of self-confidence.


Adam Szostkiewicz, Polityka, Warsaw

The iron rule of history

It was not velvet after 1989 - but a tough ride.

Adam Szostkiewicz is a writer and journalist with the weekly magazine Polityka in Warsaw

Also by Adam Szostkiewicz in openDemocracy:

"The Polish lifeboat" (22 September 2005)

"Poland marches: the people sound the alarm" (12 October 2006)

"Bronislaw Geremek: Polish and European liberal" (15 July 2008)

"Leszek Kolakowski, 1927-2009: a master figure" (21 July 2009)On 4 June 1989 I was a witness to both the joy and the horror of world history. In Warsaw, the joy was that my Solidarity was winning free general elections which had come as a result of a negotiated agreement between the authorities and the movement's leaders, who embodied the nation's hope for radical change.

And then the horror. I watched the news of what had happened on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. A thought flashed through my mind: maybe we were wrong to strike a deal with the authoritarian regime. How can we be sure that tomorrow they will not backtrack on all fronts and use force to clamp down on people's aspirations?

But there was no Polish Tiananmen. The unthinkable - a peaceful transition from unfreedom to the beginnings of a liberal democracy - was to be. There were many roads more or less travelled leading to this outcome in Poland, and also in Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union, in Hungary, in hardcore Czechoslovakia and East Germany. There was also a broader context of an entire historical cycle. The eastern bloc could not survive much longer in the absence of leadership, legitimacy and economic clout. In a way, it was an end of history: the total failure of a utopian project that had been forced on people behind the "iron curtain".

What we saw in Berlin in November 1989 was spectacular. We were happy, we felt the winds of change blowing harder in Europe; but we didn't cry then. We cried when Vaclav Havel waved to hundreds of thousands of people from a balcony in Prague. For us in Poland that was the final act of liberation, the completion.

It is natural that twenty years on the emotions have faded, and that the afterthoughts are mixed about the legacy of that miraculous year, 1989. Not all the opportunities were used, nor all the dreams and hopes fulfilled. The price we paid was less social democracy and generational solidarity than was expected. Central Europe is much better, the scars of cold-war separation have started to heal thanks to European integration, but the pace of the radical shift proved too difficult to control and absorb.

By no means was it velvet, and it continues to be a tough ride. But I don't think there was much to be done about this. Isn't there an unwritten ‘'law'' of history that it's always otherwise than we believe it will be.


Vladimir Tismaneanu, University of Maryland

Vladimir Tismaneanu is professor of politics at the University of Maryland (College Park). In 2006, he served as chairman of the Presidential Commission for the Analysis of the Communist Dictatorship in Romania. His books include Fantasies of Salvation: Democracy, Nationalism and Myth in Post-Communist Europe (Princeton University Press, 1998) and (as editor) Stalinism Revisited: The Establishment of Communist Regimes in East-Central Europe (Central European Press, 2009). His website is here

The end and the beginning

Two decades have passed since the chain of dramatic events in east and central Europe that led to the accomplishment of what most regarded as unthinkable: the collapse of communist regimes, the end of a system that had seemed destined to last forever. In fact, the very idea of a post-communist situation appeared before 1989 to be a mere fantasy. Its possibility was widely dismissed, both in policy and academic circles, in the name of pragmatic realism.

True, some dissidents (such as Andrei Amalrik) and scholars saw the end coming. In 1988, I published a book called The Crisis of Marxist Ideology in Eastern Europe: The Poverty of Utopia in which I argued that two factors were leading to imminent collapse: the ideological erosion that had engendered a fatal "legitimacy crisis" of the communist regimes, and the rise of alternative movements and ideas ("civil society").

It was clear to me by then that the ruling elites - those bureaucracies that Stephen Kotkin calls "uncivil society" - had lost the indispensable self-confidence that their ideological commitment required. There was no zeal anymore; the Marxist-Leninist official creed was just a collection of trite slogans. The Mikhail Gorbachev factor (at heart, a renunciation of the Leonid Brezhnev doctrine of limited sovereignty) and Pope John Paul II's emphasis on the sacredness of truth further catalysed the revival of social forces aiming to dismantle the system.

The prevailing bleak outlooks dissolved in the course of months, then weeks, then days. The revolutions of 1989 irretrievably shattered Leninism and opened the path to the self-empowerment of the citizens of the eastern European countries. In doing so they made a vital intellectual breakthrough: the rethinking of the notion of citizenship, which had been systematically subverted and negated by communist regimes.

[To read more of Vladimir Tismaneanu's analysis, click here]


Krzysztof Bobinski, Unia & Polska

On the move

Krzysztof Bobinski is the president of Unia & Polska. He was the Financial Times's Warsaw correspondent (1976-2000) and later published Unia & Polska magazine. He writes for European Voice and is an associate editor on the Europe section of Europe's World

Among Krzysztof Bobinski's articles in openDemocracy:

"European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

"Europe's politics of self - and others" (20 October 2008)

"The Polish summer, 1989: a farewell salute" (2 June 2009)

History didn't come to an end In 1989. It merely paused. It wasn't a year of revolution but more one of restoration. Mikhail Gorbachev created the political space for change and Soviet-dominated Europe took the opportunity to break free. The miracle was that the change was a peaceful one. Revolutions need visions. Restorations are less imaginative. But where could these societies go after Soviet-style state-planning had drained the enthusiasm for utopias of any kind? Easy. To the bright lights of the west! Anyone who travelled at night by train between East and West Berlin before 1989 will know what I mean. Desperate gloom on one side (the eastern), a bustling flood of light on the (western) other side.

Luckily for central Europe in 1989 (and in contrast to the Balkans) there were institutions to go to (the European Union and Nato) and models to follow. The question for reformers was always: "how do they do it over there?". The only choice they had to make was which western state model (French, German, Anglo-Saxon) they wanted to follow.

Twenty years later history is on the move again. A completely new generation of 20-year-olds has been born. Suckled and educated in conditions of freedom of speech and freedom to travel, they now stand at the verge of the job-market. They are self-confident as individuals but they have yet to articulate a future vision of their societies for themselves. Meanwhile their elders - who should know better - are beginning to scratch at historical sores. Old antagonisms are beginning to re-emerge: Poles and Lithuanians, Italians and Slovenes, Hungarians and Slovaks, Ukrainians and Poles, Croats and Slovenes. President Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic has expended energy in making the "Benes decrees" a political issue. Then there are the Russians. At the same time post-cold-war western societies now see no common enemy, and ask what the EU and Nato - those anchors for the post-Soviet states, are for.

The main thing to remember about 1989 is that it was a time of non-violent change. Let's hope we manage to defend that legacy in the coming years.


Alexander Rahr, German Council on Foreign Relations

A great reversal

The break-up of the Soviet Union almost two decades ago opened the possibility of a period of freedom for Europe which the continent had never before witnessed. The two main positive elements of the new European peace order were the inclusion of twenty-seven (and rising) European states in a joint European Union, and the emergence of a new cooperative and non-totalitarian Russia.

Alexander Rahr is programme director for Russia / Eurasia at the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik (German Council on Foreign Relations / DGAP) in Berlin

Russia chose to open herself up and eventually ally herself with the west. The EU became Russia's main trading partner and Russia emerged as the EU's main energy supplier. President Yeltsin and his foreign minister Andrey Kozyrev even proposed creating a joint democratic system across the northern part of the planet consisting of Russia, the United States, the European Union, and Japan. They thought that this was the only way to protect Russian civilisation from challenges from the global south. During an early state visit to Poland, Yeltsin officially stated that Russia does not object to Poland's membership of Nato.

The west gained great advantage from the dramatic changes of the 1990s in Russia. It welcomed Russia's revolution and the end of communism. The cold war ended peacefully. The US and the EU supported Russia with financial credits and other assistance, out of fear that a weak Russia may collapse and throw Europe into chaos.

Now, in 2009, things look completely different. Vladimir Putin has returned Russia to authoritarian rule, but also strengthened the country's economic system. The mentality of the Russian elites and population has changed. In 1989-91 they celebrated the gain of freedom alongside the other nations of the former Warsaw Pact. Today, Russia sees these years not as its victory but as its defeat. Why did things go so wrong?


Rein Müllerson, Tallinn University Nord

Old walls, new fences

1989 symbolises a period that was anything but dull. At twenty years' distance, a definitive balance-sheet of these years of excitement is still elusive.

Rein Müllerson is the Rector of Tallinn University Nord. He was professor and chair of international law at King's College, London (1994-2009), a member of the United Nations Human Rights Committee (1988-92), visiting professor of the London School of Economics and Political Science (1992-94), and first deputy foreign minister of Estonia (1991-92)

Rein Müllerson's books include Human Rights Diplomacy (Routledge, 1996) and Central Asia: A Chessboard and Player in the New Great Game (Kegan Paul, 2007). His latest work is Democracy - a Destiny of Humankind? A Qualified, Contingent and Contextual Case for Democracy Promotion (Nova, 2009)
Also by Rein Müllerson in openDemocracy:

"The world after the Russia-Georgia war" (5 September 2008)

"Democracy: history not destiny" (27 November 2008)

"Europe, America, Russia: the world-changing tide" (29 July 2009)

If for Confucians who value stability and order the ancient Chinese phrase "May you live in interesting times" may have sounded like a curse, for people in eastern and central Europe - whose states were part of the Soviet bloc - these were years full of promise. There was a lot of idealism and naivety in the air and expectations were high. It is natural that not all promises were fulfilled. For many the glass seems half empty; for some it is indeed emptier than before. Thus in trying to answer the question "do we live better now than twenty years ago?", it would be difficult, even preposterous, to speak on behalf of every person, every social group or even every nation.

There is certainly more freedom today, both in Europe and in the world as a whole. Most countries have also become more prosperous. However, quite a few societies have become less equal and several bloody conflicts have emerged whose facilitating circumstances at least (if not their roots) lay in those transformations. For the grieving mothers, sisters and daughters of Srebrenica there is no consolation in the aggregate increase of freedom.

True, for the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians, as well as for most people in former Soviet central Asia and the Caucasus, the collapse of the Soviet Union (for Vladimir Putin "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century") meant coveted independence; but many women in (say) Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan don't feel at all that they have become freer than when they were ruled from the Kremlin. Independence does not always lead to an increase in freedom. The Caucasus has seen several bloody conflicts that have created immense human tragedies, where many find it hard to see the benefits of the post-1989 changes.

The unravelling of federal states like the Soviet Union and socialist Yugoslavia left many ethnicities discontented. It is indeed difficult to explain (I know it since I have tried it) why the Croats, Slovenes or Georgians (for example) deserve independent statehood while the Kosovars, Abkhazians or South Ossetians don't; and, when the latter have (thanks to external support) also declared themselves to be sovereign nations, why some deserve recognition while others don't. After all, the "uniqueness" of a case seems to be only in the eye of the beholder.

A lesson of these twenty years is that authoritarian, multiethnic states may not survive transition intact; but that attempts to encourage dissolution and attempts to hold together entities whose parts don't want to live together can be equally dangerous. There aren't any ideal solutions; a choice between lesser evils is often all that is available.

The enlargement of the European Union has in general been a blessing for those newly independent states already under Brussels's umbrella (or close to it). The EU is criticised on account of its bureaucracy, its waste, its democracy-deficit and other (real and exaggerated) sins; but it has benefited those who were lucky to be close to this postmodern union. Nato's role has been more controversial, and its transformation from cold-war alliance into a collective-security entity has been too slow.

The processes of transformation in Europe that peaked in 1989 came in the decade after their tenth anniversary to be overshadowed by other developments: 9/11 and the "war on terror", the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the end of the unipolar moment and the rise of China, the global financial and economic crisis, nuclear proliferation, and acute environmental crisis. All have impacted on central and eastern Europe. The full influence of the Barack Obama administration is still to be felt; but in the region, its less confrontational attitude and more pragmatic foreign policy are not always to the liking of those who, having dismantled the old walls to the west would prefer to erect new fences to the east.

Where one stands depends on where one sits. During these twenty years I have lived in three capitals (Moscow-Tallinn-London, and now again in Tallinn) and worked for a while for the United Nations in central Asia. This experience has given me a multi-perspectival view of the developments unleashed by the attempts of Mikhail Gorbachev to reform the Soviet Union. Such a view is not better or worse; it is simply different.

An approach that may lack passion, and be capable of noticing the strengths of opposing policies and attitudes, tends to conclude in a recipe for reflection rather than a call to action. So be it. In any event, the balance-sheet is in my view positive, and not even every unintended consequence has been wholly negative; though with hindsight we see that sometimes too much was lost in the transition and too many left behind.

The year 1989 has a different significance to many Chinese people than it has for those in Europe. The fact that the most important event of that year happened on the same day as the first democratic elections in Poland makes clear why. Emily Lau is a member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council (Legco), representing The Frontier political group. Her website is here Also by Emily Lau in openDemocracy: "Hong Kong's long march to democracy" (14 March 2007) "Tiananmen, 1989-2008" (4 June 2008) "Tiananmen, 1989-2009" (4 June 2009)

On 4 June 1989, the People's Liberation Army turned its guns on unarmed Chinese citizens who were demonstrating for clean government, social justice and civil liberties. The atrocities rocked Hong Kong to its foundation. Eight years later in 1997, Britain handed Hong Kong over to Chinese rule. During all these years, the Hong Kong people would neither forgive nor forget the bloody crackdown. This year, on the twentieth anniversary of the massacre, more than 200,000 people flocked to Victoria Park to attend the candlelight vigil.

The events in Beijing two decades ago have left an indelible mark on the psyche of many Chinese people. They have sharpened the people's awareness of the need to condemn violation of human rights and strengthened the people's resolve to struggle for democracy. In 1989, many people were thrown into jail without a fair trial and others were forced into exile. The Chinese government insisted the crackdown was necessary in order to avert chaos. Internationally, China became a pariah.

In the past decade, significant economic advancements have turned China into a world power, with many countries queuing up to enter its enormous market. There is concern that economic development may make political reform even more remote and unattainable.

However, an increasing number of Chinese people recognise that democracy, human rights and the rule of law are core values cherished by civilised countries. They also know - as did the citizens of eastern and central European countries in 1989 - that these core values are not manna, and will not just fall from heaven. If China wants to become a respected member of the international community, it must adopt the international standard of behaviour and drastically alter the brutal way it treats its own people. The June 4th massacre brings back painful memories. Hopefully the victims did not die in vain.



Tibor Dessewffy, Demos Hungary

In the mirror of the future

One of the most amazing aspects of the magic year of 1989 is that no one really seems to care about it anymore. The happy feelings of those legendary months have clearly disappeared somewhere along the way. The manichean dichotomy of the world - west vs east (or reds), good vs evil - vanished too, leaving us all with a more complex and confusing world devoid of a universal "grand narrative".

Tibor Desseffy is president of Demos Hungary, and a member of the European Council of Foreign Relations Also by Tibor Dessewffy in openDemocracy: "Jumping into the shining dark: the hope of European enlargement" (15 October 2002) "What's Left now?" (15 April 2009)

In the west, the general sentiment regarding this undivided Europe is rather mixed, and even shows a touch of resentment towards the newcomers from the east; a subtle taboo may make this difficult to express openly, but in the fifteen countries that composed the European Union before the big enlargement of 2004 there is a widespread feeling that "we should not have let the barbarians in".

By contrast, the people in question - the liberated, elevated populations of the east - tend to forget and ignore the freedom they claimed so recently. In the early 1990s the favorite metaphor to describe this stage was that of a hangover: after the carnival of history, dizziness and disorientation. Now it seems that we are caught up in a permanent and growing condition of distrust, social and political polarisation, rising extremism and a frustrated, violent public discourse.

This, perhaps, may be the real (if hidden) relevance of 1989. Instead of the westernisation of the east, the easternisation of the west: that is, the general spread of a crisis of legitimacy, growing mistrust in political institutions, and the disaffection from democracy itself. These problems are no longer the property of an exotic other, but increasingly appear (in various stages and degree) all over the developed world.

But eastern Europe, lacking the democratic tradition of checks-and-balances, arguably faces a harder time in coping with these dangerous trends. The tabloidisation and increasing asininity of the public sphere, for example, has an even more harmful impact in the region than in areas where quality segments of the media have had time to develop.

But a famous comment attributed to Zhou Enlai - that it is too early to judge the French revolution's impact on world history - certainly applies to the mere two decades since 1989. It is indeed impossible to say whether Europe's east and west alike are sinking further into ineffectiveness and indifference, or whether they have touched bottom and can find a road back towards a vital, operating democracy. The good and bad news is that, characteristic of an age when everything has speeded up, we will not have to wait 200 years for an answer.


Neal Ascherson

How it ended

Neal Ascherson is a journalist and writer. He was for many years a foreign correspondent for the (London) Observer, and reported on events in east-central Europe. Among his books are The Struggles for Poland (Random House, 1988), Black Sea (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996; reprinted 2007), and Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland (Granta, 2003) Also by Neal Ascherson in openDemocracy: "Tbilisi, Georgia: the rose revolution's rocky road" (15 July 2005) "The victory and defeat of Solidarnosc" (6 September 2005) "Ryszard Kapuscinski: from Poland to the world" (25 January 2007) "Poland after PiS: handle with care" (26 October 2007) "The Polish March: students, workers, and 1968" (1 February 2008) "After the war: recognising reality in Abkhazia and Georgia" (15 August 2008)

What amazes me now is how long it took us - we in the west - to see what was happening. For journalists, it was a case of a great story blotting out a world-changing one. The communist regimes of Europe were transforming themselves, quarrelling openly. In the first part of that year, the East Germans snarled at the Poles, the Hungarians hinted that they would license free political parties, the Czechoslovak regime became slightly more tolerant to protest demonstrations. It was all very exciting. Careful sources cultivated over years were suddenly becoming wildly indiscreet, while Mikhail Gorbachev and his spokesmen muttered about "the Sinatra doctrine" ("I did it my way"). But it would be naive, wouldn't it, to think the Soviets meant literally that any communist country could now take any course without fear of Soviet tanks.

So we thought that several nations - Poland, Hungary at least - would become almost free societies, communist in name and Warsaw Pact allegiance, but democratic in their tolerance of diversity. The East Germans and the Czechs would become angry and isolated, but would not succumb to the new freedoms around them. Above all, Moscow would never let go of Germany. Communism in Europe was brain-dead, but still had huge muscles.

It wasn't until June that I realised what was underway. In the Europejski Hotel in Warsaw, we journalists read the inrush of election-result printouts and realised - suddenly - that Polish communism had collapsed. And even then, realising that a non-communist Polish government was about to upset the whole balance of Europe, we did not quite get it. Even then, none of us understood that the whole imperium from the Bug to the Rhine was no more than an old wasps' nest hanging from a roof - dried-out, abandoned by the stinging hordes, ready to fly to dust at a blow.

But the people did get it. They had lost something - not exactly their fear, but their patience. Suddenly it seemed unbearable to go on accepting these systems, these portly little idiots in their blue suits, for another year, and then for another day, another hour. That special sort of impatience is the power-surge of revolution. As they poured into the streets in Leipzig and Prague and Tbilisi and Riga, did they think they might be shot? Yes, possibly. In Georgia and Latvia and Lithuania, many were. But, with their patience, the people in the street had also lost their respect for the men with guns, the portly idiots in uniform. They could kill, but they were no longer real. A future without them had all at once become very real.

We know so much more now about how 1989 happened. The fall of the wall was consequence, not cause: it was made inevitable by the opening of the Polish roundtable the year before. Above all, by Gorbachev, who went round Europe and the world unlocking the gates and telling everyone that the tanks would not come. Western diplomats and journalists didn't take him seriously. The party leaderships beyond the Elbe did, and they knew real fear.

It was a real revolution. But with one missing feature. That is the feeling in a people that "We have done it once, and if the new lot let us down, we can do it again!" It was that proud, menacing confidence which made the French revolution special. But it's not around in 21st-century Europe. After 1989, the people handed over liberty to the experts. Will they ever want it back?


Patrice de Beer

Two worlds

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde

Among Patrice de Beer's articles in openDemocracy:

"May ‘68: France's politics of memory" (28 April 2008)

"Sarkozyland: France's inward politics" (16 June 2009)

"France's monarch-president: on the frontline" (20 October 2009) It is only in retrospect that great historical events§ seem inevitable. If anyone had been asked in 1988 what would happen in 1989, who would have mentioned the fall of the Berlin wall, or the Tiananmen massacre?

The fact that what did happen came as such a surprise is a lesson in the follies of prediction and political judgment. The respected anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who died at the age of 100 on the eve of this anniversary, deeply regretted having been a pacifist in 1938; he said about himself that when you have made such blunders you should never indulge in politics.

In Europe, the events of 1989 led to the establishment of new nation-states, political freedoms and the extension of the European Union to the east. In China (and in other dictatorships - China, Vietnam, North Korea, Cuba) there was retrenchment. The difference is symbolised by the results of Mikhail Gorbachev's visits to that year to East Berlin and Beijing. He was welcomed with great public enthusiasm in both cities; but whereas in East Germany the hardliner Erich Honecker was soon replaced and the German Democratic Republic collapsed, in China what followed was the ousting of the relatively liberal CCP general-secretary Zhao Ziyang and the Tiananmen repression.

We are still living with the results of that epic year. In France, 1989 was the 200th anniversary of the revolution of 1789. The president, François Mitterrand, organised a huge show on Bastille day, 14 July; at the last moment, a homage was added to those who on 4 June had paid in blood for having dreamed of loosening the post-Maoist regime. Perhaps, when political freedom comes to China, it too will come to seem inevitable. And then 1989 will again change shape in retrospect.


Takashi Inoguchi, president, University of Niigata Prefecture

A view across continents

Takashi Inoguchi is professor emeritus, University of Tokyo and president, University of Niigata Prefecture

Also by Takashi Inoguchi in openDemocracy:

"The Japanese decision" (6 August 2003)

"An ordinary power, Japanese-style" (26 February 2004)

"America and Japan: the political is personal" (16 June 2004) In Europe, the year 1989 was momentous: it saw the fall of the Berlin wall, unleashed freedom, and even seemed for a time to promise the "end of history" in the continent. In Asia too it was a year defined by a single event with great consequences: the massacre of the Tiananmen demonstrators in Beijing, which crushed hopes of democratic change and unleashed a period of rampant wealth-creation.

This contrast between Europe and Asia in political direction is striking. The crackdown in China reverberated across the region; it helped usher in an era of authoritarian democracy (or pseudo-democratic authoritarianism) which influenced most east Asian and southeast Asian countries.

The economic aspects of 1989, however, suggest a deeper affinity between Europe and Asia. In both regions, the opening of borders and markets heralded the "end of geography".

In Asia, this trend was symbolised by the crucial Plaza accord of 1985, which led to the easing of regulations on currency-trading. As a result, Pacific Asia and north America drew closer. The consequences for Japan were profound. Indeed, 1989 was also the peak year of Japan as Number One.

From 1991, Japan's economy slowly deteriorated in a long recession that was to last for sixteen years.The Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 hit the region hard, while the great American financial crisis of 2008-09 negatively affected east and southeast Asia as well as the rest of the world. Both emphasised the cross-border power of markets and currency-systems.

The impact of the "end of geography" on political life is profound, if still being worked through. In Japan, the long-term hegemony of the Liberal Democratic Party ended in 2009. This reflected not just temporary disillusion, but the party's gradual loss of power over groups and individuals below the state level. The steady penetration of globalising forces into what was the much-vaunted organic unity of the nation-state is transforming politics in Japan. In this respect, Europe and Asia twenty years after 1989 do not seem so far apart.


Katinka Barysch


The Soviets force Germany to leave Nato in return for accepting reunification. The alliance languishes. The German capital remains in Bonn; Berlin's crumbling state is a constant reminder of the shattered dreams of 1989. The European Union accepts only three central European states as members. A fourth one never reached a democratic settlement after the soldiers fired at peaceful protesters in January 1990. Estonians and Bulgarians need visas to go to Paris or Warsaw, and they are unhappy. European integration stalls because France and Britain do not overcome their misgivings over German reunification.

Katinka Barysch is deputy director of the Centre for European Reform

Also by Katinka Barysch in openDemocracy:

"Turkey: the constitutional frontline" (15 April 2008)

"Europe and the Georgia-Russia conflict" (30 September 2008)

"The real G20 agenda: from technics to politics" (16 March 2009)Timothy Garton Ash, marvelling about our lack of imagination, likes to quote Henri Bergson's phrase "the illusions of retrospective determinism". We assume that things could only turn out the way they have turned out. But of course it could have been so different.

Tiananmen Square did happen and Mikhail Gorbachev ended up under house-arrest two years later. Many Europeans thought the European Union should not offer membership to countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. Nato membership for Poland and its neighbours seemed such a long shot. German reunification was supposed to take decades.

Perhaps the outcome could have been even better. Yugoslavia could have joined the EU as one country in 2007. Slovakia could have grown by an average of 7% a year since independence, instead of the 5% it actually managed. Russia could have continued on the path towards democracy.

What is the yardstick against which we measure the transformation of central and eastern Europe since 1989? Surely the fact that we have a reunified Germany in the middle of a more deeply integrated and prosperous European Union of twenty-seven countries can only be called a success?

Most people in western Europe would probably agree. But the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD's) Life in Transition survey suggests that a lot of people in the former communist countries are ambivalent about what has been achieved. In the new EU members, fewer than half of the people say their lives are better now than in 1989, or that their political situation has improved. I hope that the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall makes more people remember how uncertain the outcome of the "velvet revolution" looked back than.


Goran Fejic

The trial and the wall

When they arrested Radovan K he knew that the times had changed. They did not arrest him because of the charges brought against him by a remote international tribunal. Those charges had been there for years, collecting dust. And those who decided that he should be arrested despised that tribunal as much as he himself did. But, the country that had sheltered him for so many years, the country that had allowed him to walk freely through its capital city, disguised as a picturesque witch-doctor and to ridicule international prosecutors, suddenly decided that it had other, more pressing priorities, such as joining the European Union. These new priorities happened to be incompatible with the hospitality accorded to RK. Being arrested because of changing times is something he probably felt as a major insult, judging by the sad "offended dignitary" mask he displayed to the judges in The Hague. It is a good sign that times are changing in Serbia.

Goran Fejic is senior adviser in the strategy and policy unit at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA)

But, times have not changed in Srebrenica, quite the opposite. Time had stopped running there fifteen years ago and remained frozen since. The "international community" tried to repair the clock: it financed expensive forensic investigations; set up sophisticated laboratories to track and compare tiny samples of DNA, to attribute fragments of bones, reconstitute bodies and allow families to bury their loved ones. It was a costly investment; it did help, but not enough. For the widows and orphans of Srebrenica, the page has not been turned as yet. The trial could help to do so: an effective and transparent trial of RK, followed by an equally effective trial of his macabre executor RM, both brought to their logical conclusions in the form of unambiguous convictions. That, perhaps, could help to turn the page and reset the clock in Bosnia.

This is the least one can hope for. But, the Hague trial(s) could do more than that. While we celebrate - and rightfully so - the tumbling of the Berlin wall and while Europe seems to be waking up again after a period of doubts about itself and its role in the world, it may be sobering and wise to remember that Srebrenica too is part of Europe's history after the fall of the wall. On the surface, the violent collapse of the former Yugoslavia seemed to be an exception, an ugly, confusing and absurd stain on the bright horizon of reunited Europe. The Balkan wars were spoiling the happy re-encounter of democracy and capitalism. Europe was shocked but unprepared to respond.

Then, as the fires were gradually extinguished and the new borders set, the propensity of Europe to draw lessons from the Balkans tragedy faded away. The new democratic consensus made the fundamental debate of ideas almost obsolete and the analysis of conflict focused on the "deep-rooted and immutable" issues of cultural and ethnic identity. In a vicious circle of self-fulfilling prophecy, ethnicity and identity indeed started being looked at as hard facts in politics rather than fictional categories. The shift was reinforced by the economic crisis, raising unemployment and social marginalisation of ever larger groups of people - the existential uncertainty of impoverished and disempowered consumers who once used to be citizens. They sought refuge and shelter in identity.

The temptation to resort to identity-politics remains latent in Bosnia, the former/late Yugoslavia and beyond. It takes different forms, from the harassment of Roma communities in parts of the "new Europe" to the "criminalisation" of illegal immigrants in "old Europe" (and their occasional forceful repatriation to war-zones such as Afghanistan). Europe still radiates the image of a land of peace, relative prosperity and tolerance. But strange monsters resurface from its past and stain that image. Rather that an exception to an otherwise merry-go-happy European journey towards continent-wide democracy, Srebrenica and the current trials at The Hague should be seen as a warning against complacency, an incitement to think about the broader and longer term effects of political manipulation of identity. Rewinding the nationalistic script and the sequence of events that led to Srebrenica should help understand these linkages and the current trials at The Hague could provide valuable food for thought. The Balkans are never far away.


Arthur Ituassu is professor of international relations at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His website is here

Also by Arthur Ituassu in openDemocracy:

"Brazil at the crossroads" (15 August 2006)

"Brazil: democracy as balance" (15 November 2008)

"The price of democracy in Brazil" (21 May 2009)

"Brazil's new political identity" (2 November 2009)

Arthur Ituassu

A time of fusion

The significant changes that took place in Brazil's politics and society in 1989 and afterwards are deeply connected to the larger global processes launched that year. In fact, they can be understood not as the product of the end of the cold war in the country but as the end of the cold war itself in Brazil.

Brazil's self-image at the time was of Shakespearean proportions. After twenty years of a military regime (1964-85), it was preparing for the first democratic presidential elections of a new era amid a deep economic and social crisis. A race of twenty-two candidates was won by Fernando Collor de Mello, who defeated Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in a run-off (Lula eventually reached the office in 2002 after two more defeats). The whole experience generated a convulsive political debate in Brazil, in which a great number of ideas about Brazil's economic model and international integration circulated.

The effect was a frontal challenge both to the framework of development that had prevailed since the 1950s (which continued Brazil's traditional economic isolation) and the export model established with the approval of the IMF after the debt crisis of the 1980s. But this challenge was made possible only by the exciting context of 1989: namely, the notion of an unprecedented crisis in Brazil, and of a world in a process of radical transformation as the cold war ended and borders (and markets) opened. The experience of 1989 in Brazil opened spaces for the arrival of new ideas focusing on the need for a more integrated economy and a major reform of the state.

This crucial moment in Brazil's history belongs, in my view, within the wider dynamics of transformations of 1989. This approach, I believe, allows Brazil to be seen both as part of the global processes of the period yet also making its own contribution to it in terms of the development of a new political language and democratic framework in the country.


Also in openDemocracy on 1989:

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The Polish summer, 1989: a farewell salute" (2 June 2009)

Fred Halliday, "What was communism?" (19 October 2009)

Anthony Barnett, "Our normal revolutions: 1989 and change in our time" (30 October 2009)

Also in openDemocracy, a series on the legacy of 1968:

Neal Ascherson, "The Polish March: students, workers, and 1968" (1 February 2008)

Todd Gitlin, "Regaining the kinetics of 1968" (11 April 2008)

Sophie Quinn-Judge, Vietnam's 1968: a dissident's shadow" (30 April 2008)

Paul Hockenos, "The 1968 debate in Germany" (2 May 2008)

Patrice de Beer, "May 68: France's politics of memory" (28 April 2008)

Fred Halliday, "1968: the global legacy" (11 June 2008)

Also in openDemocracy in 2009, two symposiums on global events in the United States and Iran:

"Barack Obama: hope, fear... advice" (19-23 January 2009) - contributions from thirty-seven authors, including Paul Rogers, Antara Dev Sen, Paul Gilroy, Ehsan Masood, Mariano Aguirre, Dejan Djokic, Emily Lau, Michele Wucker, John Hulsman, Onyekachi Wambu, Arthur Ituassu, Bissane El-Cheikh, Sergio Aguayo, Hsin-Huang Michael Hsiao, and Noriko Hama

"Iran's election: people and power" (15-18 June 2009) - contributions from Ramin Jahanbegloo, Anoush Ehteshami, Nazenin Ansari, Omid Memarian, Grace Nasri, Nasrin Alavi, Rasool Nafisi, Sanam Vakil, and Farhang Jahanpour

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData