Recently, The Observer dedicated an ample material to the Romanian revolution (featuring an interview with Ion Caramitru), and another one dedicated to the revolutions that made the world of today, by Ed Vulliamy and Neal Ascherson. “Christmas Day 1989: Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena are shot dead by firing squad, after a trial lasting less than two minutes. But was the world watching a people’s uprising, or a communist coup d’etat? Ed Vulliamy returns to Bucharest, to report on the aftermath of the most mysterious downfall of the Cold War.” Read the article ‘It was impossible to have a revolution in Romania. So it had to be staged’ – click here.
“By the start of 1989 communist regimes had ruled eastern Europe for 45 years. By the end of that year they had all been routed by extraordinary public uprisings. Here, Neal Ascherson, who reported on the momentous events for the Observer, recalls the idealism and anger that drove the protests”. Read the article ‘A time when hope replaced repression’ (2 August 2009) – click here.
The eastern bloc in the 1980s
Germany The Berlin Wall divides West Germany from East Germany, an eastern bloc state under the strict political and military control of the USSR.
Bulgaria Widely regarded as the USSR’s most loyal eastern European ally. Under Todor Zhivkov, labour camps are closed, some freedom of expression is tolerated and the persecution of the church is ended.
Romania Nicolae Ceausescu heads a strict regime characterised by extreme nationalist policies and a cult of personality surrounding its leader.
Hungary Janos Kadar’s government is considered to be the most lenient of the eastern bloc states. Authoritarian social policies and high levels of state surveillance are maintained yet the standard of living is relatively high. With the economy floundering, Kadar resigns in 1988 and is replaced by Karoly Grosz.
Czechoslovakia Despite his nominal commitment to Gorbachev’s programme of perestroika, President Gustav Husak maintains strict communist rule and there is little political or economic reform.
Poland A communist government rules under General Jaruzelski, but the country’s independent trade union, Solidarity, gathers political force despite martial law being imposed between 1981 and 1983. Economic crisis means food and other basic materials are rationed.
The Key Figures
Mikhail Gorbachev General secretary of the Soviet Communist party from 1985 and president of the USSR from early 1990. Responsible for sweeping “glasnost” and “perestroika” reforms that led to the collapse of the Soviet empire. Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 and following a failed bid for the presidency in 1996 set up the Social Democratic party of Russia; resigned in 2004. Now planning a comeback with billionaire ex-KGB officer and owner of the London Evening Standard Alexander Lebedev.
Vaclav Havel Playwright and signatory of Charter 77, played a leading role in the Civic Forum and the Velvet Revolution. Was the last president of Czechoslovakia in 1989 and the first of the new Czech Republic in 1993, a post he held until 2003. His latest play, Leaving, had its premiere in Prague last year to excellent reviews. Met President Obama at a summit in Prague two months ago. He is reported to be preparing to direct his first film, based on his play Leaving, and starring his wife Dagmar.
Vaclav Klaus A former state economist, then Civic Forum supporter, he was made finance minister in 1989. In 1991 founded his own Civic Democratic party, now one of the largest, most right-wing Czech parties. Prime minister 1992-1997. Defeated Havel to become president in 2003. Re-elected last year.
Lech Walesa The Gdansk shipyard strike leader and founder of trade union movement Solidarity that led to downfall of communism. President of Poland 1990-1995. Failed in another bid for the presidency in 2000 and quit Solidarity in 2006.
Adam Michnik A leading organiser of the illegal opposition in communist Poland, he edited several underground newspapers. Adviser to Solidarity, then member of parliament in 1989. Set up the influential Gazeta Wyborcza of which he remains editor-in-chief.
Miklos Haraszti Writer and co-founder of the Hungarian Democratic Opposition, he participated in the 1989 “round table” talks that led to a multi-party democracy. Member of parliament 1990-1994. Now high-level international civil servant with OCSE Vienna.
Jan Kavan In exile in the UK after the Prague Spring, he supported Charter 77 and edited the East European Reporter. Returned to Prague during Velvet Revolution, joined Civic Forum and became foreign minister minister (1998-2002). A member of the Senate until 2006. President of the UN General Assembly 2002-2003.
—- Diana Mandache