The Year Europe Stood Still

As Germany celebrates a quarter of century from the fall of the Berlin Wall and commemorates the victims of the separation and of an oppressive East German state, let’s have a look at what the year of 1989 meant for Eastern Europe as a whole and some of the changes that were set in motion in that fatidic year:

  • Poland was the first country to begin the transition to democracy, by allowing the Solidarity movement to run for elections as a party. In the national elections of June 1989 they won a majority in the Senate and thus Poland become the first Soviet satellite state to have a non-communist Prime Minister. A year later, Solidarity’s leader Lech Wałęsa was elected Poland’s first democratic President.
  • Hungary started making it easier for its citizens to travel abroad, even as early as 1988, together with other policies that reformed the economy and allowed for some limited political liberalization: freedom of association, of assembly, of press, trade unions as well as other important changes. The Communist Party of Hungary re-established itself as the Socialist Party in October 1989 and allowed for free elections to take place, which were subsequently won by Democratic parties.
  • Communism ended in Czechoslovakia through a non-violent transition of power that happened between November 16 and December 29, following protests by students and dissidents in what ended up being known as the Velvet Revolution (or as the Gentle Revolution in Slovakia). Václav Havel became the President of Czechoslovakia on December 29, 1989.
  • Romania was the only country in the Eastern block that had a violent overthrow of its dictator, which ended 42 years of Communist rule in the country. It all started with riots in the western city of Timișoara on the 16 of December 1989, followed by protests all across the country which culminated with the protests in Bucharest during the days of 21st and 22nd of December. The dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, and his wife fled the city but were soon captured, prosecuted and executed on Christmas Day; over 1000 people died, fighting forces loyal to the old regime. Afterwards, the country started its transition to democracy.
  • In Bulgaria, long time Communist Party leader, Todor Zhivkov, was forced to resign from power and his successor Petar Mladenov removed the Communist Party’s privileges, thus allowing for free elections.
  • The last European country outside of the USSR to renounce Communism was Albania, with protests demanding change starting in 1989 and improvements started to be seen in 1990. March 1992 brought the first victory of the anticommunist opposition, let by the Democratic Party.

USSR followed suit 2 years later, with Boris Yeltsin’s election as the President of the Russian Federation, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union on the 12th of June 1991; the dissolution provided freedom for all of its satellite states.

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