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1989: A Year of Momentous Change

A Virtual Special Issue of Europe-Asia Studies, with articles selected by Professor Martin Myant

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1989: A Year of Momentous Change

Articles selected by Professor Martin Myant

Over the years since 1989, Soviet Studies/Europe-Asia Studies has published articles on different aspects of the dramatic changes that took place in that year. This virtual special issue to mark the thirtieth anniversary reproduces a selection of them.

1989 was a year of momentous political change across eastern Europe. At the start of the year Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania were all effectively one-party states, with a ruling communist party (sometimes with a different name) suppressing opposition and taking all important political decisions. By the end of the year that system had collapsed in all of those countries. The ‘leading role of the party’ had gone, opposition parties and movements were free to operate, new governments had been formed, often dominated by opponents of the old regime, and contested elections had either been held or were scheduled for the near future. This was part of a general transformation, covering also the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and a number of other state socialist countries. However, the changes in the six countries in eastern Europe were exceptionally rapid. There were similarities across countries in the processes and outcomes, alongside significant differences in the nature and ordering of changes, as indicated in the chronology at the end of this introduction.

The near simultaneity of the changes suggests a common cause—a point discussed further below—but there were also big differences between countries in the extent and nature of the decay and breakdown of the old system and these influenced both how the transformation of political power took place and how political life and policy making developed in its aftermath. Although in all cases the old system was facing serious difficulties, it was far less clear how it would end, what would replace it and whether the new system would be the same across all countries.

The selection of articles here concentrates on the narrow time period of the collapse of one-party rule and the establishment of new governments. There was a longer historical background, encompassing periodic political crises and open displays of popular opposition and the economic stagnation and decay of the state socialist systems. A full assessment of the events of 1989 would also require discussion of what came next, in terms of a process of political consolidation and economic and social transformations. Keeping the time period short makes sense. The break-down of the old system was fairly rapid, in some cases extremely rapid, and the new governments lacked clear conceptions on how to handle the multiple problems they faced. Decisions on how to proceed reflected many new influences that can be considered separately from the events of 1989 themselves.

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Among the countries of Eastern Europe some appeared as leaders in the political transformation while others were, to varying extents, followers. Hungary and Poland deserve to be considered leaders, exhibiting the earliest visible decay of the old system of political power. Their ruling parties were verbally committed to substantial reform of economic, and to some extent also political, systems even before 1989. There was also some continuity in thinking on economic reform after the political changes. In these countries alternative political forces had taken the clearest shape, also showing diversity in thinking and aims, going beyond just ending the ruling party’s monopoly of power. Czechoslovakia’s regime was more resistant to change so that, although there was some liberalisation, even the word ‘reform’ was effectively a taboo until the old power structure collapsed. The opposition that took over contained some diversity of views, but was even less prepared for power than those in the first two countries. However, firm commitment to parliamentary democracy was not in question. East Germany showed even less prior liberalisation, but the power structure also collapsed quite quickly. Thinking on how to proceed then proved much simpler than in any other country when German reunification brought a policy agenda from outside. Bulgaria played the role of a willing follower, nudged by Soviet pressure into a change in party leadership immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This opened the way to political diversity and contested elections in June 1990, incidentally won by a reformed version of the old ruling party. Romania saw the most visible resistance from the old regime and its repressive organs. Internal opposition had been the least coherent and significant beforehand. The new regime emerged from within the old power structure and thinking on a new course after changes in political power remained to take shape.

The extent of the differences between countries points to the need to explain the simultaneity of political changes. Two factors appear crucial. The first was changes in the Soviet Union which had slightly different effects across the countries of Eastern Europe. The most universal was eventually to remove fears that major changes could be blocked from that quarter, ultimately by military intervention. This was a concern in Poland and Hungary where change was leading rather than following those in the USSR. In Czechoslovakia the new approach under Gorbachev was a stimulus to a little new thinking within the regime and a source of growing confidence from the regime’s opponents and from the population at large. Changes in the USSR were the least important for Romania where the leadership had pursued an independent, and highly authoritarian, course over many years. This difference helps explain the weakness of alternative policy ideas and the armed resistance from part of the old regime.

A second factor explaining simultaneity was that events in one country stimulated change in others. It was very clear how changes in Hungary, leading to the decision to open the border with Austria, contributed to the downfall of the East German regime. There was also an important effect on populations when they saw the speedy disintegration of previously all-powerful regimes elsewhere. That gave them courage and confidence that mass demonstrations would not be met by full-scale armed repression. East Germany and then Czechoslovakia, as fears of Soviet intervention seemed proven to be unfounded, quickly played the role of followers in the political transformation across the region. There were signs of greater activity from opposition groups and of weakening control over populations prior to the political changes of late 1989, but there was nothing comparable to the processes under way in Hungary and Poland.

The articles selected here are intended to give some unifying background while also demonstrating the diversity of experiences. A broad context is set by Terry Cox’s introduction to the Europe-Asia Studies special issue on 1989 (63:9, pp. 1529–34). This shows the development of state socialism across the region leading up to its collapse. Adrian Pop (65:2, pp. 347–69) provides a different approach to the background with a discussion of how far the changes of 1989 fit with established notions of ‘revolution’. His comparison of the course of events points to causes for differences in those countries’ past development. For the events themselves an essential piece of background is provided by Mark Kramer’s (63:9, pp. 1535–90) discussion, also from that special issue, of the development of Soviet policy, with a particular focus on its relationship to events in East Germany.

Contributions on Hungary provide more detail on the disintegration of the old monolith. This is covered very directly by Maria Csanadi (43:6, pp. 1085–99), using empirical research on the party organisation in an important part of Budapest. The old power system showed itself to be extraordinarily fragile. Officials suddenly found nothing more to cling to from the past and, it seemed, not too much to fear in the emerging new system. Political transition in Hungary was becoming more a matter for a diverse opposition, involved in Round Table discussions with the old regime—held from April to September 1989—but struggling to find coherence and unity on all points. This is shown from research on debates covered by Nigel Swain on the method for electing a president, showing how difficult it was for the opposition to find a unified position on plans for the future (58:8, pp. 1347–75). Meanwhile, some at the top of the old power structure were seeking ways to take immediate changes further while still concerned over possible Soviet reactions: only late in 1989 were they confident that there had been a real and fundamental change in policy there. This, and incidentally also some of the implications of changes in Hungary for East Germany, are brought out in Terry Cox’s (63:9, pp. 1627–38) discussion with László Vass, a leading figure in Hungary’s ruling party in 1989, covering an episode in the opening of the border with Austria. The actual process of transfer of power ran through contested elections. István Kukorelli (43:1, pp. 137–56) follows the lead-up, involving discussions between representatives of the old regime and the opposition, and the final outcome of the elections that took place in 1990.

Janina Frentzel-Zagorska (42:4, pp. 759–77) provides a comparative perspective on political developments in Hungary and Poland by applying the concept of civil society to the two cases. In Poland’s version diversity was subsumed under the Solidarity umbrella, following repressive attempts from the regime. In Hungary diversity was covered by no such unifying structure and different political forces could emerge to compete independently in the first contested elections.

Economic policy issues were more prominent in Polish debates and disagreements between the old regime and the opposition, reflecting the seriousness of economic difficulties and their importance for the rise of political opposition. Thus, they took a prominent place in the Round Table discussions, running from February to April 1989, which were the prelude to contested elections in June 1989, convincingly won by the opposition. Branko Milanovic (44:3, pp. 511–32) summarises the changes in macroeconomic policy from 1988. He sees reforms implemented in February of that year as possibly marking the beginning of the end of communist rule in the economic sphere. There was then some continuity from this final phase of communist power to the so-called Balcerowicz programme of the new regime, implemented in January 1990. Governments felt they were confronting the same economic problems and much of the difference in policies followed from the ability of the new regime to command more public trust. Kazimierz Poznanski (44:4, pp. 641–64) pursues the more specific theme of the development of privatisation policy which also showed both continuity and change as the new regime recognised some of the complexity of the tasks it was setting itself. Kálmán Miszei (44:2, pp. 283–96) provides a comparison between Poland and Hungary showing the disintegration of the statist pyramids and the cautious rise of advocacy of privatisation even before 1989, albeit in forms that became known as ‘nomenklatura’ privatisation, meaning transferring ownership to those already with power in the economic hierarchy. It was an approach that proved unpopular, possibly contributing to some later caution in those countries towards very rapid privatisation.

 Analyses of public opinion can help explain how far thinking from the past influenced the course and aftermath of 1989. Janina Frentzel-Zagorska and Krzysztof Zagorski (45:4, pp. 705–28) use some of the substantial research in Poland to show the strength of the view in the 1980s that the system was unjust because of the nature of political power. This led to a positive view of a market system and of private enterprise as a remedy for inequality: there was in comparison with western Europe a low level of faith in the state as a vehicle for redistribution or for securing social justice. These attitudes persisted even after the first experiences of economic transformation in the early 1990s, despite a common assumption that much of the population would see the state as a natural source of security and as a protector of their interests.

Where political change was more rapid and brought to power former dissidents, there was often a similarly sweeping rejection of the past in more spheres of lie. Igor Hájek’s (46:1, pp. 127–42) account of Czechoslovak cultural policy, including publishing, shows its dependence on the sudden political transformation and the disruptive consequences of a sudden ending of state support. The assumption of the new elite was that the market would prove an adequate replacement. That implied a completely new beginning which did not come quickly. There were complaints from some of the losers, but the new political elite, following the experiences of some of its members as former dissidents for whom state support was denied, had little faith in a state-dominated system.

In Romania, where former dissidents were less immediately politically successful, the rejection of the past was also less immediate. This country does not fit into a pattern of change in the Soviet Union enabling, or encouraging, processes leading to democratic transformation. It was the last eastern European country to experience the crucial political change. The regime seemed remarkably solid until confronted by demonstrations of opposition from a population emboldened after watching developments in neighbouring countries. They then faced a violent and determined reaction from security forces which were defeated in armed conflicting, culminating in the emergence of a new regime, formed from part of the old power structure. They did not come with a clear conception of how much they would change. One of the implications is followed by John Gledhill (63:9, pp. 1639–69) in a study of the background to organised violence against opposition to the new government in June 1990. This arguably further delayed the development of democratic politics.

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Chronology of events of 1989 and early 1990




12 January


Parliament approves ‘democracy package’, presaging substantial revisions to the constitution and allowing opposition and independent organisations.

18 January


Party leadership agrees to Round Table talks following a wave of strikes demanding relegalisation of the independent trade union Solidarity.

6 February–4 April


Round Table talks between regime and Solidarity agree to partially contested elections and relegalisation of Solidarity.

22 April–18 September


Following public demands for substantial political change, Round Table talks between regime and various opposition groups take place and agree on a range of constitutional changes and a framework for elections.

2 May


Start to dismantle border fence with Austria.

4 June


Partially contested elections, resounding victory for Solidarity.

10 September

Hungary and East Germany

Hungary formally allows East Germans to cross the border to Austria, infuriating the East German regime.

13 September


New government with Solidarity representative as Prime Minister.


East Germany

Street demonstrations, growing in scale. Regime opposes any concessions, but Soviet regime opposes violent repression and the military does not intervene.

7 October


Ruling Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party becomes Hungarian Socialist Party.

16–20 October


Parliament debates and approves law on multi-party elections, following Round Table agreement.

18 October

East Germany

New party leadership, but no end to street demonstrations.

9 November

East Germany

Berlin Wall opened.

11 November


Following some street demonstrations, old party leadership resigns and is replaced by new leadership, allowing freedom of assembly.

17 November


Police violence against a student demonstration.

19 November


Mass demonstrations begin and escalate, demanding political change.

27 November


First two-hour general strike.

1 December

East Germany

Leading role of the party removed from constitution by parliament.

7 December

East Germany

First meeting of Round Table, involving regime and independent groups and parties, agrees to contested elections and drafting a new constitution. Later meetings agree on method of transition to democracy.

10 December


New government, dominated by newly-created Czech and Slovak opposition umbrella organisations.

11 December


New party leadership concedes to demands to drop leading role of the party.

16 December

East Germany

Old ruling party changes its name and claims to be a democratic socialist party.

16 December


Demonstrations against arrest of a Calvinist pastor.

21 December


Ceausescu booed at demonstration called to show support for the regime. Violent repression, ultimately leading to armed conflict and more than 1,000 deaths.

22 December


Military opposes repression and supports demonstrators against those of the security forces still loyal to Ceauşescu, armed conflict continues to 27 December.

22 December


National Salvation Front, formed by figures from within the old regime, takes power.

26 December


Ceausescu executed after speedy military tribunal. New interim government announced by National Salvation Front.

27 December


National Salvation Front, holding key levers of power, decrees end to one-party state, bans Communist Party and allows other parties.

28 December


Long-standing dissident Václav Havel elected president by parliament.

29 December


Constitutional change in name from People’s Republic of Poland to Republic of Poland.




1 January


Economic reform programme begins under Solidarity government.

3 January–14 May


Round Table meetings between regime and opposition groups, leading to contested elections.

29 January


Polish United Workers’ Party dissolved, transformed into Social Democracy of the Republic of Poland.

18 March

East Germany

Transformed version of old ruling party defeated in parliamentary elections.

24 March


Parliamentary elections won by former opposition.

3 April


Communist Party becomes Bulgarian Socialist Party.

20 May


National Salvation Front wins parliamentary elections.

6 June


Former opposition wins parliamentary elections.

10 & 17 June


Bulgarian Socialist Party wins contested elections.

30 September

East Germany

Germany reunified.


Martin Myant is a member of the Europe-Asia Studies Editorial Board. Read more about his academic background and publications here.

Europe-Asia Studies

Europe-Asia Studies is the principal academic journal in the world focusing on the history and current political, social and economic affairs of the countries of the former 'communist bloc' of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Asia. At the same time, the journal explores the economic, political and social transformation of these countries and the changing character of their relationships with the rest of Europe and Asia. From its first publication in 1949, until January 1993, the title of Europe-Asia Studies was Soviet Studies. The Editors' decision to change the title to Europe-Asia Studies followed the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. It reflected the belief that countries of the former 'Soviet bloc' would gradually become more closely linked with both Europe and Asia, while continuing to present distinctive topics for research as a consequence of their specific experience. In 2007 the Editors took a further decision to extend the journal's scope to include China and other Asian countries that are or were under communist rule.

Language: English

Publisher: Europe-Asia Studies is published by Routledge on behalf of Central and East European Studies, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow.

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