Too early to say if 1989 was a liberation or a revolution


We were alone in the beginning. Had we failed the process of change would have taken very much longer or been impossible. This was a battle for a larger sphere of freedom. It was not a takeover of power from the communists. We were within the Soviet bloc. There was the risk of a nuclear conflict. We had a responsibility to succeed.

- Tadeusz Mazowiecki, MP, chairman of the Polish Parliamentary Committee for European Affairs and Prime Minister of Poland, 1989-1991.

Ten years after June 1989, when the first free Polish elections brought him into government as prime minister, Mr Mazowiecki offers these reflections on the significance of the events in his country. They set the scene for the revolutionary transformation which swept through central and eastern Europe later that year, bringing the Cold War to an end.

It was an extraordinarily peaceful change, achieved miraculously without bloodshed, according to the Hungarian Prime Minister, Mr Viktor Orban. Mr Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic, put it like this: "We demonstrated it was possible to win against the army, police, militia and party controlling the whole state. The people succeeded in turning it upside down in the middle of an international crisis. No one could determine how it would happen - life and history are permanent surprises".

Adam Michnik, editor of the radical liberal Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and a prominent representative of the dissident generation who drove the Polish changes, summed them up as follows: "We have succeeded in creating a free and democratic Poland for our children and grandchildren" - and this after such a long time when Poles "were not able to use the winds of history for their benefit".

They were speaking at an international conference in Vienna last weekend organised by the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) based there and the Prague-based Project Syndicate, a network of over 40 mainly European newspapers co-operating across the previous European divide and dedicated to erasing the barriers it imposed on the continent.

Another speaker, Mr Viktor Klima, Federal Chancellor of Austria, believes the real significance of 1989 is that it brought an end to dividing lines in Europe, which must not be reimposed. He was one of many to underline the enormous achievement involved in making the transition to democracy and private capitalism peacefully, "without revenge or exclusion. We take stability as a matter of course."

But the fate of ex-Yugoslavia shows the dangers of new nationalisms married to the totalitarianism overthrown 10 years ago. As Vaclav Havel put it, nationalism

provides a new collective mentality, drawing on the older communist one and manipulable by unscrupulous leaders exploiting the difficulties of those afraid to make the transition towards greater individual self-reliance - "a very sad experience, which we hadn't assumed would happen".

He spoke of the need for irony, humour and detachment in counteracting such spillovers from nationalism, in itself a vessel containing perfectly legitimate emotions.

Timothy Garton-Ash, historian and chronicler of 1989 in central and eastern Europe, invited the participants to say whether it was a revolution after all. Compared to the revolutions of 1789 or 1917 did it contain a big new idea?

Was it characterised by a new method of politics or a new moral dimension? He was inclined to think it was the how rather than the what of the change that distinguished 1989.

Certainly the contrast between peaceful change in central and eastern Europe and the violence in ex-Yugoslavia bears out this interpretation. It must be remembered that on June 4th, 1989, while Poles elected their new power-sharing government following prolonged inclusive round table negotiations, Chinese troops attacked the protesters in Tiananmen Square, Soviet tanks attacked in Tbilisi and the parliament building was stormed in Vilnius.

"Our responsibility made us act cautiously, so as not to expose these changes to disintegration - as we know from the Balkans today," according to Adam Michnik.

"We could not have thought the Soviet empire would fall apart in the way it did - we were afraid of violent actions leading to reactions from Moscow. We did not seek power, we looked for truth, not revenge, prison or re-education camps."

Garton-Ash believes it was a mistake for the European Community to choose a common currency rather than a common army in response to 1989; rapid enlargement rather than EMU should have been the priority. But the idea that the euro is a bad idea whose time has come seems like a piece of retrospective wisdom - as Adam Michnik said, it can be as difficult to predict the past as the future.

EMU is the price France exacted for German unification at Maastricht; and few European leaders east or west then expected the US to withdraw its forces from the continent.

If Chou En-lai found it too early to assess the significance of the French Revolution in the 1960s, how much more so is it 10 years after 1989.

That assumes it was a revolution rather than a liberation from occupation by the Soviet empire, as Mr Orban suggested. He resisted the idea that the price of the velvet revolution was a historic compromise with the ex-communist nomenklatura, enabling them to transform themselves into a new economic elite, given that his party has so sharply distinguished itself from parties representing them in Hungary.

Michnik pointed out that sometimes in politics tough words hide more moderate policies. Havel agreed that some of the utopian expectation for a new type of politics was quite naive 10 years ago; but the world still needs its spirit of a new consciousness, civil society and responsibility. He welcomed NATO's intervention in Kosovo as an affirmation of such values and of the idea that Europe has always been one political entity though very diverse. All agreed that corruption is an abiding price paid for the peaceful transition.

There is also an abiding question mark over how committed western Europe is to integration - is it accession or annexation, Mr Mazowiecki wondered aloud? Another Polish speaker, Alek sander Smolar, contrasted the utopia of European reunification based on dignity, culture, values and common dreams with the purely bureaucratic process of being forced to accept 80,000 pages of the EU's acquis communautaire in the accession negotiations.

These reservations aside, in the light of Kosovo and the response to it from the rest of Europe it may be suggested that unity of the continent could in time be judged the main outcome of 1989.

In that perspective the Yugoslav disaster was the exception to the rule and was effectively contained. The proposals to include the Balkan region in European integration and to offer a long-term stability pact to develop their economies would complete that process.

NATO enlargement is as valued as the EU one in most central and eastern European states, but several speakers pointed out that the NATO bombing of Serbia was much more popular with political elites than mass publics.

If a common European army was not possible during this decade much more co-operation on security and defence is heralded in the one to come. The former national security adviser to President Carter and contemporary geopolitical guru, Zbigniew Brzezinski, told the conference that "Europe is not a partner of the United States in security and defence, but a US protectorate". This is because of the deep asymmetry between their military capabilities.

Whereas the European NATO states spend two-thirds of the US total military budget, they get only 20 per cent of its capability, he estimates. No European power would have been able to mount the Kosovo operation without US help.

He spoke to provoke and successfully did so. As he sees it one of the major tasks beyond the end of the Cold War will be to manage the transition from current US hegemony, preponderant if not omnipotent, towards a more equal political and military relationship with Europe. There are conflicting trends within the US administration as to the desirability of this transition, and also conflicting interests vis-a-vis Russia, the Middle east, the Gulf and world trade.

Mr Sergei Kirienko, a former Russian prime minister, told the conference Russian people still suffer from a deep identity crisis arising from the loss of superpower status. Adjusting sensitively to that reality remains just as important for the current crop of European leaders as it did for the cautious revolutionaries of 1989.