Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, October 19, 2009

The End of Communist Rule in Eastern Europe

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

It has now been two decades since the end of Communist rule in the Soviet bloc states of eastern Europe.

Soviet tanks had installed these regimes after the Second World War, had kept them in power, and in a number of cases - in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in 1981- had actively intervened to save them from collapse.

Only when the Kremlin decided no longer to prop them up did they get swept away - and then quite rapidly.

Except for Romania, these countries did not move immediately from hardline Communist regimes to non-Communist ones: there was a "liberal Communist" interlude of reform which played an important role in bringing communism to an end.

By the mid-1980s it was clear that eastern European states were in deep trouble: stagnant growth, declining living standards, food shortages, growing discontent, foreign indebtedness, and a degraded and poisoned environment were the fruits of four decades of mismanagement.

But only when a new leader emerged in the Soviet Union could reformers make their move.

Committed to an end to the Soviet dominance of eastern Europe, Mikhail Gorbachev foreswore any interference in the internal affairs of other states. He met with nearly every Communist leader in eastern Europe before and during 1989 and indicated his support for change.

Aware of all the defects of Soviet-style socialism, the more liberal Communists now saw their chance. They thought the system could yet be reformed from within. Younger than the entrenched apparatchiks in power, they were willing to grant autonomy to non-Communist political movements and open a dialogue with them.

But this was not to be. Trying to liberalize communism proved to be an oxymoronic task: it was, as the dissident Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski concluded, like trying to "fry snowballs."

The pattern in eastern Europe in 1989-1990 more or less followed the same sequence, though details differed:

A group of liberal Communists, usually younger and farther down the party hierarchy, met to discuss ways to get rid of the conservative leadership still in command.

Anti-Communist dissidents then stepped forward, leading strikes and protests, which resulted in crackdowns and unrest. This was the signal for the liberal Communists to call for major reforms. Gorbachev sided with them.

The old conservative and Stalinist leaders were then pressured to resign or retire, sometimes even losing their party ranks.

"Round table" negotiations, designed to open the political process and bring into the political system opposition groups, were begun. Liberal Communists envisaged a mixed system with the Communist party continuing its "leading role" while sharing some power.

The liberal Communists, now in control, then held free elections. But newly formed non-Communist parties won these and the Communists lost power.

Non-Communist governments then emerged which dismantled, relatively peacefully, the whole apparatus of Communist rule. Only in Romania was there considerable bloodshed during this period. (Yugoslavia, which dissolved into civil war, was not a Soviet satellite.)

In trying to liberalize communism, the reformers had simply hastened its demise. As the French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville had observed long ago, "The most perilous moment for a bad government is when it seeks to mend its ways."