8th European History Forum: 30 years after 1989: Freedom from What? Freedom to do What?

“The worst thing about Communism is what comes after.”

Adam Michnik


In 1989, a wave of revolutions swept the Eastern Bloc in Europe. The reform movement that ended communism in East Central Europe began in Poland. Solidarity, an anti-Communist trade union and social movement, had forced Poland’s Communist government to recognize it in the 1980s through a wave of strikes that gained international attention. When the dam burst, the revolution spread fast. In early 1989, there were six countries in the Eastern Bloc aligned with the USSR – East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria – along with Yugoslavia and Albania on its margins, but considered behind the iron curtain. The revolution began in Poland and Hungary. It came to a head with the opening of the Berlin Wall in November, and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, embracing the overthrow of the communist dictatorship in Romania in December and ending in December 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Many countries of the Socialist Bloc shared their experience of revolutions with the Soviet countries, like the Baltic States. The movements that unleashed these political disturbances had a broad but diffuse social basis. They were motivated by the desire for more democracy and better living conditions but lacked any clear idea of how to achieve these ends.

Historians, political scientists and anthropologists from Eastern and Southeastern Europe were invited to Berlin by the Heinrich Boell Foundation and Memorial – International Historical and Educational, Charity and Human Rights Society to attend the 8th European History Forum. There they would discuss how 1989 influenced later developments in the former Socialist Bloc countries.

Over the last 30 years, former Socialist Bloc states have undergone unprecedented political, economic, social and cultural changes; they have experienced the benefits as well as the disillusions of democratization and the uncertainties of a new economic system in an ever-shifting international context. The end of the Soviet Union and of the so-called Communist Block triggered important changes. The dissolution of three union states in the 1990s – the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia – led to the creation of twenty-four new states in the region. Several of them went through wars (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Serbia, Albania and Ukraine). To varying degrees, over the last 30 years, all post-communist countries enacted a series of reforms in an effort to free prices and trade, balance budgets, cut inflation, create competition, privatize state enterprises, establish market institutions, and construct social welfare programs. The issues that reshaped the economies of the former Eastern Bloc states were discussed in detail during the History Forum.

Over the past three decades, frozen conflicts have determined the main thrust of politics, economics and international relations in the republics of the South Caucasus. The region remains war-torn in Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. The ethnic conflicts in the South Caucasus erupted in the early stages of the dissolution of the USSR – in 1987, after Mikhail Gorbachev, the former First Secretary of the Communist Party, declared "glasnost" and "perestroika". During the Berlin forum, Ketevan Sartania, a sociologist from Georgia, discussed the impact of the April 9, 1989, anti-Soviet demonstration in Tbilisi and the recent past of Georgia. I was another speaker from the South Caucasus at the Forum. In, my presentation I tried to narrow down the umbrella topic of the forum to the particular theme on dissident movements and the samizdat press in late Soviet Armenia. Both of us analyzed the later events in the South Caucasus countries through the prism of 1989. These events influenced the gradual transition processes in these states, which led to the Rose Revolution in Georgia (2003) and the Velvet Revolution in Armenia (2018). After these revolutions, not only did the governments inherited from the Soviet Union surrender their positions, but the legal and overall administrative system gradually changed. Still, Armenia and Georgia have a great deal of work to do to deepen the kind of reforms that will strengthen their democracies and improve living standards.