Ukraine: Why 2014 Isn't Another 1989 For Eastern Europe

Snow, fire and determination in Kiev
Snow, fire and determination in Kiev
Yves-Michel Riols


PARIS — Is this 1989 all over again?

One generation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the protests in Ukraine instinctively bring to mind the revolutions that swept away the dying communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe. The images of crowds, initially peaceful and festive in Kiev’s Independence Square, are similar to those showing throngs braving the cold on Prague’s Wenceslas Square during the winter of 1989.

As for the violence that shook Ukraine last week, it echoes back to the scenes of civil war in the streets of Bucharest that accelerated the overthrow of Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu, whose summary Christmas day execution marked the bloody epilogue of European communist dictatorships.

Then, like now, people rejected authoritarian and incompetent governments, a mass renunciation of a deaf and blind power.

“Like Ukraine today, the communist states in 1989 were morally discredited, economically feckless and running out of steam,” says the Carnegie Endowment’s Judy Dempsey.

What has happened in Kiev is very similar to what was expressed 25 years ago in the streets of Warsaw, Bratislava and Bucharest. The civic burst that winter was a claim to finally live in “normal” countries, clear of arbitrary justice, nepotism and the culture of privileges.

The same demand for a huge clean-out emerged from across the Ukrainian protest. But that’s where the parallels end. In 1989, communism collapsed from the inside. Its ideology was a hollow shell, and the system’s breakdown was inevitable. Until the end of the 1980s, Poles still lined up outside empty shops, and most Romanians only discovered the taste of oranges after Ceausescu’s downfall.

But most importantly, after four decades of power punctuated by many uprisings, from Budapest in 1956 to Prague in 1968, “communist regimes no longer had the resources, or the legitimacy, to do battle until the end,” says Nicu Popescu of the Institute for Security Studies. “This was not the case for the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, who, just a few days ago, still had support in certain parts of the country.”

Protesters in Prague on Nov. 25, 1989 (Sju)

Another major difference is that there were already available leadership replacements when the Berlin Wall fell. An opposition fueled by years of resistance — Poland’s Solidarity trade union had 10 million members in the 1980s — embodied a huge opposition force.

“At the time of the transition, Poland had three assets that Ukraine lacks today: trust, an organized civil society, and a regime resigned to backing off,” says Michal Baranowski, director of the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund, a transatlantic think tank.

Heading West

The context is also different. The Russia of 1989 was weak, incapable of opposing the emancipation of satellite countries in Europe or the secession of Ukraine. After the collapse of the USSR, there was also an alternative — a turn-key model to look towards, embodied by the two powerful symbols of the European Union and NATO. The horizon was drawn, and there was a general consensus on which direction to take: West.

This perspective of light at the end of the tunnel played a fundamental role in stabilizing new democracies in Central Europe. The European project represented integration for states that were fragile and economically worn out after the ravages of the Soviet system. Another element was also decisive, especially in Poland and Hungary. A tacit compromise was made with the communist leaders that if they abandoned power, no charges would be brought against them.

The absence of a “Nuremberg of communism” still causes much debate today, with the crimes of the Soviet bloc still haunting so many memories. But it was probably the bitter price to pay to avoid a bloody struggle for power in countries occupied by the Red Army where senior communist officials had destabilizing capacities at their disposal thanks to their security networks.

Despite the precedent of the “Orange Revolution” in 2004, Ukraine has neither managed to renew its elites (no Lech Walesa, no Vaclav Havel), nor to overcome its many divisions, of which the bloodbath in the streets of Kiev was the tragic expression.

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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