Revolutions of 1989–90 in Eastern Europe Research Paper

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1. A Deviant Type Of Revolution

The Revolutions in Eastern Europe were no conventional changes of the system that can be dealt with in the tradition of sequence models. There was no uniform anatomy of the changes, though never in European history have so many regimes collapsed at the same time and for similar reasons. Revolution was traditionally linked to violent change that made it different from coups d’etat. Nevertheless, the depth of change made the events between 1989 and 1991 a political and a social Revolution at the same time. In this respect it was comparable only to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and its later repercussions in the ‘people’s democracies’ after 1945 in the realm of influence of the Red Army. This double Revolution made consolidation of the new ‘Revolutionary regime’ so difficult.

No former system’s change was as burdened with the same problems of institution-building as this one. Authoritarian and fascist dictatorships may have changed the political institutions, but they hardly touched the system of stock markets and banks. There was no need in post-authoritarian regimes to create offices to administer unemployment insurance nor institutions for social security.

This process of transformation was so unique that the old notions of Revolution and reform tend to be inappropriate. Perestroika in the Soviet Union was frequently compared to the politics of Peter the Great, the Meiji Revolution, or the innovations of the Young Turks in the Ottoman Empire. Reform was defined as an eclectic un-ideological process of un-dogmatic actors. The consequence was contradictory measures and even ‘messiness’ of reform. Ex post facto, perestroika proved its messiness. But was it really not ideological? This author prefers to list perestroika under the type of reforms from above, steered by the ideological thrust of a great leader.

In Gorbachev’s self-perception, perestroika was a Revolution. The old Soviet Union under Brezhnev started to accept rather loose talk about Revolutions. Revolution lost its connotation of a process intended by political elites and by political means. It was watered down to processes that the Central Committee and the Politburo of the party were no longer able to control, thus demographic, environmental, and technological Revolutions entered the discourse in communist countries. Gorbachev tried to use Revolution again in a more political way. Perestroika was dubbed a ‘second Revolution’ and Gorbachev hinted at Lenin who had already envisaged several revivals of Revolutionary activities in the tradition of the great French Revolution that failed to implement its goals in one coup and had to be repeated in 1830, 1848, and 1871. Western analysts, on the other hand, never used the term Revolution in describing the process of perestroika.

Only at the end of perestroika had the term system’s change found universal acceptance. It lacked the connotations of violence and civil war implied in the term Revolution, but is nevertheless aimed at a far-reaching change of politics, society, and economics. The minimal criterion is a break-down of the old system. This does not need, however, Revolutionary force.

The Revolutions in Eastern Europe were different from former Revolutions because—with the exception of Romania—never have so radical changes been achieved with so little violence from below and from above. Eastern Europe proved to be a deviant case in the history of Revolutions for several reasons:

Political modernization was achieved in two different phases. The system’s change was a second attempt at modernization after the socialist attempts in 1917 and 1945.

The collapse of socialism resulted from a threefold dissatisfaction of East European populations: dissatisfaction with a repressive political system, with an inefficient economic system, and with the dominance of hegemonic ethnic groups within a federation (Russians, Serbs, and Czechs) or within the socialist camp (the Soviet Union vis-a-vis its satellites).

There was not the same continuity of periods as in Southern Europe in the 1970s with phases such as liberalization, democratization, and consolidation.

The new process of transition was burdened with the unique double task of transforming the political and the economic system at the same time, something which has never before happened in world history.

The new transition process was hampered by ethnic strife, which occurred to an unknown extent. Spain had experienced some of it, but managed to solve the problem by various autonomy concessions.

In former transitions, a new elite was ready to take over power. There was no real preparation for the new task in Eastern Europe. Even non-Marxist scholars sometimes believed in Marxist periodization schemes. They held that a system needed to develop an economic basis and a recruiting ground for the new political elite. The old regime developed the preconditions of change. Revolution was only the last blow for the old system. The simplicity of this concept of transitions did not even work in the great French Revolution. Historians have shown that the French Revolution did not abolish feudalism or establish a market society throughout the country. This process of accomplishing a true market society was not successful before the beginning of the Third Republic (1875 ff).

2. Reasons For The Velvet Revolutions

First, in the history of changes of regimes the leadership groups have frequently disunited. One part of the power elite started mobilizing the masses. In Eastern Europe this model did not apply. The elites remained quiet until the last moment. The technical intelligentsia did not develop into an opposition to the ‘strategic clique’ in power, as had been forecasted. The technical intelligentsia increasingly de-ideologized and created more room for maneuvering in its own field, independent of political leadership. It avoided conflict, however.

Reformist elites in those socialist systems where the regime eroded slowly and Revolution was pacted in a corporalist mood also avoided the appeal to the masses. In Hungary, the negotiated Revolution took place with complete discipline and there was no unified counter-elite. In Poland, Solidarity could have been the counterforce, but in the last stage it was pressed by the people rather than directing the masses into conflict with the ‘nomenclature’ leadership.

Only in Romania—in the third model of a collapse of the system, but under control of a middle-level elite of the old regime—was there conflict among elite sectors. The military, after some wavering, finally sided with the protest movement, not so much because of ideological sympathies with the Revolutionaries, but because of its rivalry with the Securitate armed forces. The military played the role of a rear guard—blamed by Lenin as ‘chvostizm’—but apparently the capacity to wait and see and to grasp the right moment for action in the rear guard is not always a negative feature, as Lenin supposed.

Second, the European fascist dictatorships in 1945 collapsed because they were defeated in a war. In Southern Europe and Latin America external factors contributed to the collapse of a regime (Greece, Portugal, and Argentina). In Eastern Europe the changes of the international situation facilitated the peaceful velvet Revolutions. The Soviet Union still existed as a hegemonic power, but Gorbachev had indicated that the satellites could no longer rely on Soviet help in a case of internal strife. It was less the active behavior of a superpower, than the nondecisions of the hegemonic bloc power that did not intervene, which caused the collapse of the whole alliance. Theoretically, each national elite could have followed the Chinese example of bloody suppression. Why did this not happen?

The most important reason is again the international factor: the ‘Brezhnev doctrine’ was meant to strengthen weak regimes within the bloc. But the bloc center at Moscow was not prepared for a situation where all the leaderships of her satellites entered into troubles at the same time. The Brezhnev doctrine proved its dysfunctional consequences. It had spoiled the satellite leadership because they were always able to rely on big brother’s tanks. Only Romania was the deviant case which did not recognize the doctrine and therefore had to provide for her own security. All of the other governments were not accustomed to big actions for their own security and caved in as soon as the masses confronted them directly.

The old regime in its last defensive stage pretended that the turmoil was caused by subversion from the ‘imperialist powers.’ This was wrong, since the Western powers were so accustomed to detente that they avoided direct actions for destabilizing the communist systems. It was not international but rather transnational policies which contributed to the destabilization of communism from outside. The protest movements in the streets of Leipzig did not receive weapons, but got information instead from the Western media about the situation in the country, the counter-reactions of their leadership, and the points of rallying for the protest movement.

The international factor could explain certain framing conditions of the development, but nobody would have dared to forecast that the Soviet Union was so occupied with her internal problems that she had no capacity for intervention abroad.

Third, the most complex explanation of regime breakdown is the loss of legitimacy. In socialist countries legitimacy could not be measured by surveys. The mass media in the West, such as Free Europe and Liberty have tried to measure legitimacy by the instrument of mail from the East, but results were unreliable. In the early 1980s, it was calculated that the communists in free elections would not get more than 3–5 percent of the votes, whereas they actually received 10–15 percent in the most developed systems and much more in the less-developed communist regimes in the southeastern parts of Europe.

Was socialism ever legitimized? Its foundation by force was not forgotten by large parts of the population in the satellite countries. Acceptance of the regime was concentrated on the cadres. With growing success and material benefits, however, legitimacy grew also under communist conditions.

Paradoxically, communism collapsed due to its partial success, especially in the sphere of producing intellectually trained elites. There was a mobilization for education, which hardly had an equivalent in the Western world. Communist systems produced a surplus of elites, whom they were unable to funnel into meaningful positions. Western democracies do the same, as periodical overproduction of elites seems to be as inevitable as the famous pig cycle, causing economic slumps in the economic and political conflicts. Western systems, though, can offer jobs for the new elites in the third sector of services when the elites cannot be integrated into the bureaucracy. This tertiary sector was chronically underdeveloped in socialist systems. Only the systems that were able to coopt the dissatisfied young elites, such as Hungary, experienced a slow transition to the new regime. Here the rebellion could be dubbed as the ‘Revolution of the deputy heads of administrative units.’

It would be unhistorical to look for a legitimacy of the whole life span of socialism. Legitimacy had also ideological foundations, and beliefs in legitimation are subject to change. In the early days of Revolutionary socialism, the system claimed a kind of teleological legitimation because the party pretended to know the outcome of history. In the Soviet Union this was certainly combined with charismatic legitimation in the time of Lenin. As time went on, however, both withered away, charisma as well as the capacity to predict the development of history. Quite frequently, the people experienced false prognoses that undermined the belief in the ideology. As Max Weber predicted, the personal charisma of the leader did not survive the founding father. Veralltaglichung, the erosion of charisma, was the necessary consequence. Stalin tried to substitute for his lack of charisma through organization and ideological leadership in all questions: from literature to biology. But this kind of mixed legitimation was increasingly built on force. With diminishing capacities of the regime for repression and mobilization, new forms of legitimation had to be found. Communist repression had to be substituted by more legal security. In the early days, huge groups of defeatists and subversive elements were discovered. After Stalin, nobody believed in this kind of singling out of groups any more. Only ‘parasitism’ and ‘chuliganst o,’ spheres where the Soviet citizen felt endangered for his own security, was he ready to buy from the Communist propaganda.

Communism failed to establish a certain balance between the four basic principles of legitimization in Western systems. The legal state was violated by arbitrary decisions of special hierarchies in the party, in the security forces, and in the planning administration. The nation state was increasingly invoked by official propaganda in order to reinforce socialist ideology, but the hegemony of the Soviet Union prevented the development of authentic independent national states, even if more systems tried to embellish the socialist dogma by the national colors. The democratic state was proclaimed by state propaganda, but in reality, for the citizens it was only manipulated participation without alternatives in the political arena. Certain ultra-democratic requisites such as ‘recall’ and ‘imperative mandate’ were operating only with a hint of the party, never because of a free decision of the citizens. Thus, the welfare state was used to legitimize the late socialist systems. In the early days, communist propaganda thought that a social state was unnecessary, because a socialist state is socially minded per se. But the leveling down of all social differences was no longer accepted by the leadership. Stalin had already denounced uravnilovka (excessive equalization).

During the years of economic growth, Hungarian Goulash Communism or Polski Fiat Communism developed a certain legitimization of the system, but in the 1980s it became clear that the communist countries were falling further behind the West. Communication with Western countries grew, which contributed to a growing capacity of the people to compare East and West. During the 1980s, the system lost its legitimacy due to the economic crisis of socialism, which was felt in most of the countries.

Transition studies on a quantitative basis confronted us with the finding that democratization is impossible as long as the power resources of a regime are highly concentrated. This assumption was not even correct in the case of the communist countries. All of them had the power to suppress the opposition and had in the 1980s increased their service in both staff and technological equipment. Paradoxically, some of the socialist countries, such as the German Democratic Republic (GDR) invested most of their technological innovation in the social control of the population instead of investing it in production. Nevertheless, the system collapsed. The enormous security equipment did not help the system survive: as was the case with the Chinese Wall, Rome’s Limes in the North of the Empire, or France’s Maginot line in 1940. Unlike these cases, the fabulous equipment was not even applied in the last conflict. The index of power resources of the old regimes proved to be of minor importance in the fourth wave of democratization. On the contrary, the better equipped a communist regime was with repressive capacities, the more radical was the change.

Revolutions of 1989–90 in Eastern Europe Research Paper Table 1

Three models predominated in the system’s change of 1989 (see Table 1):

The erosion of the regime by corporatist bargains between the power center and the opposition in a negotiated Revolution. This type of transition caused a low rate of participation among the people, because the change was pacted by elites without participation of the citizen. Many voters apparently did not even realize the amount of change and the voter turnout stagnated between 50 and 60 percent (Poland, Hungary).

The implosion of the communist regime (Czechoslovakia, GDR). In this model, the control of the ancien regime was least developed. A new elite took power. Continuity of elites and institutions was lower than in the first path to democracy.

System change was achieved by the old cadres of the second rank who kept control of the transition (Romania, Bulgaria (until 1991), Albania (until 1992), Serbia, Croatia, and most of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) throughout the first part of the 1990s).


Change proved most complicated in all the multiethnic states. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia showed elements of a ‘bargained Revolution.’ Bargaining, however, was done not by functional groups but by territorially old and new governments. In no case did the old federation survive and in no case was a new federation feasible after the collapse of the old regime.

Transition theories—in the tradition of theories about the developments of the 1990s—were most interested in the dichotomy between pact and dictate. This dichotomy was confronted with reform and Revolution in a matrix (Karl and Schmitter 1991). Most of these matrices only offered a realistic picture of the initial phase of transition.

3. Democratization And Consolidation Of The Peaceful Revolutions

‘Transitology’ as a new branch of knowledge dealing with the peaceful Revolutions since the 1970s and 1980s originally used a sequence model along the lines: liberalization, democratization, and consolidation. Only in the model of transition via erosion of the communist rule did a liberalization take place. The period of democratization is normally identified with institution-building (constitutional power and secondary institutions such as parties and interest groups). This process was successful in most Eastern European countries but hardly in the successor states of the Soviet Union. Consolidation of elite attitudes (the ‘only game in town’ criterion developed by Juan Linz) and the citizens is incomplete in most countries. The Vicegrad states, which formed a unit of economic cooperation, and those which entered negotiations with the European Union (Poland, Czechia, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia) are fairly consolidated even in terms of economic indicators. But also other systems—outside the CIS—have consolidated by experiencing several free elections, by reducing the volatility of votes, by avoiding violence, and reducing the weight of extremist parties by practicing alternating governments that included even the acceptance of a comeback of the post-communists that turned in many countries to democratic socialism (Lithuania 1992, Poland 1993, Hungary 1994). Most countries have changed the composition of their governments from The Czech Republic (1998) down to Romania (1996) without turning the critical election into a crisis of the system.

Not all the processes of consolidation were successful, however. ‘Consolidology’ as a new branch in the study of democratization discovered various types of unconsolidated democracies that have been called ‘delegated democracies’ or ‘defective democracies’. Most of these defective democracies have implemented a rather democratic mode of participation, but fall short of consolidation in the sphere of the legal state and the treatment of minorities.


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