The other 1989s

The great events in Europe in 1989 had a worldwide impact - and of a more destructive kind than is often acknowledged, says Fred Halliday.
Fred Halliday
6 November 2009

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of eastern European communism, international commentary has focussed on what these events meant for the spread of democracy and the disintegration of the authoritarian regimes modelled on the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Such attention is merited: 1989 marked not just the fall of half a dozen or so communist ruling parties, and the onset of the the Soviet Union's own end of two years later, but also a massive ideological shift in the world. The end of European communism marked the end of the cold war, but also of the sustained radical challenge to western liberal capitalism that had been a force in world affairs since the French revolution.

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)

Neal Ascherson, "1989: how it ended" (4 November 2009)

David Hayes, "1989: moment, legacy, future" (2 November 2009) - a symposium of openDemocracy writers, including Ivan Krastev, Adam Szostkiewicz, Emily Lau, Vladimir Tismaneanu, Rein Müllerson, and Takashi InoguchiIt also marked a major change in international relations at a more regional and national level. For in a range of continents and countries, hitherto intractable solutions, generated or at least accentuated by the cold war, came to some kind of resolution: in Cambodia and East Timor, South Africa, Namibia and Angola, Iran and Iraq, El Salvador and Guatemala (to name but some), Mikhail Gorbachev's "new thinking", and an increased willingness of the United States to help broker deals, led to a wave of peace initiatives, many of which have lasted.

However, as the world commemorates the democratic, east-central European 1989, and the peace agreements of what was then still widely known as the "third world", it is important to recall other transitions that coincided with these events and which followed, as inexorably as the fall of the Berlin wall, from the collapse of Soviet power. Three of these, in particular, merit attention, for two reasons: by placing 1989 in a global perspective they force recognition of other, less liberal and less welcome, outcomes of the Soviet retreat; and the consequences of these events are very much alive today.

A crisis of state

The first such process was the crisis of state power in a range of multinational countries. The breakdown of central authority, and the rise of nationalism in Europe and in parts of the "third world" associated with communism's demise, led in four countries to the very break-up of the state (and, in three of the four cases, to brutal and bloody wars). The four countries so affected were Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Ethiopia.

In the Czechoslovak case, the divorce of the Czech Republic and of Slovakia, in January 1993, took place without a single shot being fired (see Abby Innes, Czechoslovakia: The Short Goodbye [Yale University Press, 2001]). The Slovaks wanted independence, the Czechs, somewhat reluctantly at first, agreed. ("We threw them out like an unwanted lover", the Karel Schwarzenberg (later foreign minister) flamboyantly told me. "We gave them some money to buy clothes, and, when they were out of the house, changed the locks and threw their clothes into the street".

In the other three cases, a very different story prevailed. In the USSR, the finale of 1991 was not, in the main, caused by nationalist revolt or by overt and violent challenge to the communist state. There had been fighting in the south Caucasus, between Armenians and Azeris, since 1988, and fourteen Lithuanian citizens were killed in January 1991; but as a result of the restraint shown by Mikhail Gorbachev and the shrewd caution of the nationalists themselves, the USSR - in an example of peaceful imperial and state demise almost unique in history - disappeared almost without bloodshed. Overnight, and in some cases without much antecedent nationalist mobilisation, fifteen new post-Soviet states emerged.

The consequences of independence were, however, not so benign. In the Armenia-Azerbaijan case, independence for both in late 1991 led to a bloody war that lasted to 1994, killed thousands of people and displaced up to 200,000 refugees, mainly Azeris. Elsewhere, in central Asia, new inter-regional and inter-clan wars broke out, most notably in Tajikistan, where a civil war lasted from 1992-97.

Fred Halliday is ICREA research professor at IBEI, the Barcelona Institute for International Studies. He was formerly professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. Among his many books are The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology (2005) and 100 Myths about the Middle East (2005)

Also by Fred Halliday in openDemocracy:

"Iran's revolutionary spasm" (30 June 2005)

"The matter with Iran" (1 March 2007)

"The mysteries of the US empire" (30 November 2007)

"Islam, law and finance: the elusive divine" (12 February 2008)

"Stolen Wealth Funds: fantasies of control" (4 March 2008)

"Two feminist pioneers: Iranian, Lebanese, universal" (18 April 2008)

"Tibet, Palestine and the politics of failure" (9 May 2008)

"1968: the global legacy" (11 June 2008)

"The miscalculation of small nations" (24 August 2008)

"Armenia's mixed messages" (13 October 2008)

"The futures of Iraq" (4 December 2008)

"The greater middle east: Obama's six problems" (21 January 2009)

"Iran's revolution in global history" (2 March 2009)

"Iraq in the balance" (26 March 2009)

"The Dominican Republic: a time of ghosts" (23 April 2009)

"Iran's evolution and Islam's Berlusconi" (9 June 2009)

"Yemen: travails of unity" (3 July 2009)

"What was communism?" (19 October 2009)In the other two cases, the consequences were even worse. Yugoslavia had been a multi-ethnic state first formed after the 1914-18 war and reconstituted by Tito in 1945; in the early 1990s a variety of short-sighted and callous nationalist politicians - prime among them Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, but abetted by Croat and Bosnian counterparts - drove the country into three years of war in which 200,000 died. The result was the fragmentation of the hitherto reasonably successful and decent post-socialist state of Yugoslavia and a cascade of hatred, petty-mindedness and ethno-stubbornness that still plagues the remnants of that country. The former Yugoslavia is now composed of six new states, of which only Slovenia can seriously be included among the democratic camp that emerged in central Europe in 1989.

Often forgotten, but in the end most bloody of all, was the case of Ethiopia. Here there had been war for thirty years between the central government in Addis Ababa and the guerrillas of Eritrea, a former Italian colony annexed by Ethiopia (with United Nations connivance) in 1952. The Eritrean guerrillas, on grounds of history, popular will and commitment to the cause had more than made the case for independence. And, when the regime of the former Soviet ally Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam crumbled in 1991 - as an almost direct result of the suspension of Soviet arms-supplies - the new rulers of Ethiopia - born of a guerrilla movement the Eritreans had earlier supported - granted independence.

However, the militaristic and chauvinist habits of the years of struggle inbred on both sides did not die. In 1998, following a squabble over some useless land along their border, the two states plunged themselves into a border war in which an estimated hundred thousand people died. Today, the problem remains unresolved, and potentially explosive. Eritrea, a country that has seen more than its share of suffering, has the highest percentage of its population under arms of any in the world (see Selam Kidane, "Isaias Afewerki and Eritrea: a nation's tragedy", 22 June 2009).

A move to kleptocracy

The second major consequence of the collapse of communism, one masked by rhetoric about a "triumph of democracy", was the transformation of former communist parties into new, privatising ruling elites. The liberal-democratic pattern presaged in Berlin can now, twenty years on, be said to encompass some dozen European states (including the three Baltic countries); but the transformed authoritarian model, where the old party leadership has held on to power, is more than twice that number: it encompasses twelve of the fifteen former Soviet republics (with Russia as the model leader), four states in east Asia (China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia), Cuba, and a range of former pro-Soviet (what in communist terminology were "socialist-oriented") states across the world.

In some of the last category of states a semblance of former radical rhetoric can be detected (North Korea, Cuba, Syria, Libya, Algeria, Nicaragua, joined by newcomer Venezuela); in others (Burma, Angola) no such pretence is sustained. What they have in common, however, is a transition that bears little relation to the democratic change associated with the European 1989; this coincides very little with the indulgent treatment many of these states have received from western governments, and too many academics, who view them through the prism of a "transition" process.

There has indeed been a transition, but it is less towards liberal democracy than towards a political system based on corruption and embezzlement - in effect "kleptocracy". These are cases not of a "new politics" in central Europe but of a new, post-communist and in large measure post-ideological authoritarianism, in which the old elites retain power but in apparently transformed, or more accommodating, mode. Hence, in terms of numbers of states involved, let alone in terms of the populations these states control, the most important global political consequence of 1989 was the reconfiguration, amid often mendacious talk about free markets and free elections, of the old communist elites.

A time of anarchy

The third consequence of 1989 and of the associated demise of the USSR is the most ominous, and perhaps the least noticed. This is the collapse of state power and the advent of violence and anarchy to a swathe of countries (in central and west Asia, and in northwest and west Africa) where the cold war, and authoritarian socialist rule, had maintained some degree of order.

The focus of western policy on Islamist terrorism, and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has led many to date these interrelated crises from 2001, and the 9/11 attacks. However, the crisis of state power, and the spread of Islamist, regional and tribal violence across this strategic belt goes back much further. This dissolution of state power is closely linked to the demise of Soviet influence and the breakdown of authoritarian, but in their way effective, state systems that Moscow had supported (see Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times [Cambridge University Press, 2007]).

The Soviet withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan in 1989, and, even more so, the suspension of Soviet aid to Kabul after the failed coup of August 1991, had momentous effects: the end of the communist regime of Mohammad Najibullah, and then in 1996 the coming to power of the Taliban. The first Islamist attacks on New York were planned for 1993. In Yemen, the surrender of the former pro-Soviet regime in South Yemen to the North in a unity agreement of May 1990 (encouraged by Gorbachev) was followed by a civil war in 1994 that the North won; this paved the way for the upheavals that today make Yemen a semi-chaotic and violent state, riven by Islamist and other groups (see "Yemen: travails of unity", 3 July 2009).

Across the Red Sea in Somalia, it was the overthrow of formerly "socialist-oriented" dictator Siad Barre in 1991 which set the country on a course of internecine war and state disintegration. Such a degeneration is matched on the western side of the African continent where the state of Guinea-Bissau, the land of Amilcar Cabral and, in the 1970s, one of the most prominent cases of "African socialism" is now a major conduit for Latin American drugs being transported to Europe.

The case of another former authoritarian state, Iraq, should also be recalled here. This too is a former "socialist-oriented" state that is now, as a result of a western military occupation that would have been inconceivable in the days of the cold war, a byword for violence and instability. The state was most certainly brutal and authoritarian, but a semblance of order and intercommunal peace prevailed (see "Looking back on Saddam Hussein", 7 January 2004).

Moreover, the confrontation with the United States that exploded in the war of 2003 was a direct consequence of events at the end of the cold war: Saddam Hussein calculated, in the wake of the European communist implosion of 1989, that there would be pressure on him to reform and, to consolidate his position, invaded Kuwait a few months later, in August 1990. It was the strategic upheaval in Europe, and the end of constraints which the cold war had till then maintained on the Gulf region, that initiated Iraq's protracted, and ultimately fatal, confrontation with Washington (see "America and Arabia after Saddam", 12 May 2004).

All in all, the emergence, from central Asia to west Africa, of a range of violent and often anarchic states is to be counted among the consequences of the collapse of Soviet power. As with the other two strategic consequences mentioned, the fragmentation of formerly multiethnic states, and the transformation of communist elites into new kleptocracies, these processes too must be included in the balance-sheet of 1989. It is not, entirely, a happy picture.

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