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.”
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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.
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.