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1989-2000: after communism
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Central and Eastern European States -
1989-2000: after communism

Post-communist Central and Eastern Europe faced a number of serious barriers to the peaceful transition to democracy and market economies. We can identify four major interrelated problems. 

The first of these was the lack of democratic traditions. Only Czechoslovakia amongst the former Eastern Bloc regimes had any real democratic experience prior to the Second World War. And this was as much a social and cultural issue as much as it was a self-evident political problem. The social groups that had led opposition to communism were not democratic political parties but broad groupings of a wide range of different interests groups, united by what they opposed rather what they stood for. Now that the common enemy was defeated, what did the opposition want to do and in whose name were they going to do it? The second problem resulted from the limited, peaceful nature of the revolution. The communist party may have been swept aside, but the communist state with its organisational apparatus (including bloated security forces) and personnel (nomenklatura ) were very much still in place. A liberal democracy requires more than periodic elections; it requires legitimate state structures attuned to the needs of constitutionality and personnel committed to upholding constitutional practices. Put simply the problem was that building liberal democracy would have to rely upon communist builders. The third problem was perhaps the most pressing. Had the Eastern Bloc economies been able to sustain the levels of economic growth achieved in the 1950s, there would never have been revolutions in 1989. In 1990, the new leaders of post-communist states faced the problem of resolving the economic crisis that had brought them to power in the first place. The moribund command economies were to be exposed to the harsh realities of the global market and the people would no longer be protected by a state that was ideologically established to do so. Furthermore, many of the opposition groups that were now in power, most notably Solidarity had been formed to protect their members from the very forces of marketisation that they were now expected to introduce.

Key economic indicators 1988-1990


Economic Growth (%)

Inflation (%)










































Source: Rebuilding Eastern Europe (Deutsche Bank Economics Department, 1991)

The final problem was socio-cultural. The communist state was much more than an economic or political system, it had attempted to intervene in all aspects of the individual’s life; it was a totally different form of what American political scientist Ken Jowitt described as Leninist ‘civilisation’. (Ost: 5) After the socialist utopian dream had faded, people’s emotional energy had been dedicated to the movements that had opposed communism. Now that this was achieved, would people make an emotional commitment to the market? The inherent problems of economic transition to the market economy were accompanied by the loss of traditional support structures and the great fears that come with uncertainty. It is not surprising that people sought solace and explanations for their emotional needs in the very irrational attachments that communism had worked so hard to replace: religion and nationalism. Newly democratic politicians, unable to provide answers for economic malaise, exploited the emotional power of tribal and religious affiliation with devastating consequences for the region, most notably in Yugoslavia.

The break-up of Yugoslavia 

In contrast to the peaceful nature of the velvet revolutions of central and Eastern Europe of 1989, events that led to the break-up of the communist state of Yugoslavia were the most violent seen in Europe since the end of the Second World War. During a ten year period beginning with the war in Slovenia in 1991 though to the Macedonia conflict in 2001, more than 140 000 people were killed and considerably more made homeless and/or displaced.

The wars were characterized by an unusual brutality, that included ethnic cleansing, systematic rape and the deliberate destruction of priceless historical and cultural artifacts. In 1993 the United Nations established the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague for the former Yugoslavia, where more than 150 individuals have since been indicted for war crimes. 

The reasons for the violence revolve around the fundamental weaknesses in the concept of Yugoslavism itself. The country was a conglomeration of six regional republics and two autonomous provinces. These eight federal units were the six republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and two autonomous provinces within Serbia: Kosovo and Vojvodina. 

What had held Yugoslavia together was not the common ethnic identity of 'South Slavism' (what Yugoslavia means) but rather Marxist ideology, relative economic prosperity and the leadership of Jozip Broz Tito. Tito died in 1980 and by then the economy, as in other parts of the Eastern Bloc, was already in decline. Gorbachev and events in Eastern Europe produced a crisis of legitimacy for Marxism and consequently 'the glue that held Yugoslavia together, the League of Yugoslav Communists' simply disintegrated. (Stokes: 241) As in Poland, Yugoslavia under the leadership of Ante Marković, underwent market orientated, economic 'shock therapy' in 1990. But unlike in Poland the unpopularity of the measures was successfully exploited by politicians within the regional republics for nationalist political ends. The different Yugoslav states had distinct visions for the future of Yugoslavia. 

The economically powerful states of Slovenia and Croatia favoured greater autonomy for the regions within the Yugoslav confederation, whereas the politically powerful state of Serbia under the leadership of Slobodan Milošević favoured strengthening the power of the centre in Belgrade. On June 25, 1991, Slovenia and Croatia became the first republics to declare independence from Yugoslavia. With well established borders and no significant ethic minority groupings Slovenian independence presented relatively few problems. In contrast, Croatia with its significant Serbian minority and history of anti-Serbian persecution, could only declare independence at the expense of Serbian national feeling. 

The Croatian War of Independence began in April 1991 when Serbian minorities in Croatia declared their independence in the form of the Republic of Serb Krajina. Full scale civil war was underway by the late summer and resulted in the destruction of border town of Vukovar and shelling of Dubrovnik, a UNESCO world heritage site. In 1992, war spread to Bosnia, to which both Serbian and Croatian nationalists lay claim. Bosnian Serbs led by Radovan Karadzic and backed by Serbia faced Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) and Croats backed by President Franjo Tudjman in Zagreb. The Bosnian conflict with the sieges of Sarajevo and Srebrenica were the bloodiest of the Yugoslav Civil War. The war ended with the signing of the Dayton Agreement in December 1995, after successful military action by Croatia had restored its 1991 borders. The Former Republic of Yugoslavia recognised Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1996. Conflict continued in the region as Albanian national minorities in Kosovo, Macedonia and Central Serbia sought greater autonomy. The three year conflict in Kosovo only ended with NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999. Slobodan Milošević was put on trial in The Hague in 2002 but died a few months before the verdict was due in 2006. Radovan Karadžić was captured in Belgrade in July 2008 and like Milošević faces war crimes charges in The Hague. The instability in the region continues with the disputed declaration of independence of the Republic of Kosovo in February 2008.

Poland after Communism

‘When Solidarity won, Polish workers lost… with the one group that could control them [the workers], Solidarity, chiefly interested in promoting the marketization causing the emotional distress, a political crisis was inevitable’ The Defeat of Solidarity 8-9 - David Ost As we saw earlier, unlike Western Europe, Poland in 1989 was still very much an industrial rather than a post-industrial society. 60% of the workforce might be described as blue-collar, essentially working with their hands. In addition, about a quarter of the workforce was employed in agriculture. Three other points are worth highlighting. Firstly, for the previous 40 years, these workers had been living in a state which had at least in principal been organised in their interest and justified on those terms. Secondly, as we have seen, the revolutions of 1989 had been inspired by the example of their trade union, Solidarity, which was at heart a working class organisation, established to defend them. Finally, they had been led in this revolution by Lech Wałęsa, who without any question was as ‘working class’ as any of them. And yet, by sweeping aside communism in 1989 and replacing it with political freedom and democracy, they also swept aside the workers ‘organic labour state’ and replaced it with economic liberalism and the market.

After the euphoria of their victory over the communist state had subsided, the workers, the vast majority of the population, would be on their own to face the vagaries of international capitalism. On September 12th, the Sejm voted approval of Prime Minister Mazowiecki and his cabinet. For the first time in more than 40 years, Poland had a government led by non-communists. In May 1990, the first free local elections took place and Solidarity dominated. In July, the Cabinet was reshuffled to remove the last remaining communists. In October 1990, the constitution was amended in order to allow the departure of President Jaruzelski. And in December Lech Wałęsa became the first Polish president elected on a popular vote. On the surface at least, the transition appears smooth and the justice of it all, almost poetic. But below the surface, the country and Solidarity were being torn apart. From January 1990, the Polish economy was subjected to the market economy, ‘shock treatment’ of Leszek Balcerowicz. Price controls and trade barriers were lifted, many state subsidies were removed and the Polish złoty was made convertible with foreign currencies. Inflation was brought under control, but at massive social cost. Industrial output fell by 30%, wages fell by 40% and unemployment which had been non-existent under communism rose, to over 1 million before the end of 1990. Within months Poland had the highest unemployment in Europe, an unfortunate record it has maintained to the present day (2008).


Number of unemployed (in 000s)

Unemployment rate (year end) (%)


































Number of unemployed people and unemployment rate in Poland, 1990-2000 Source: European Industrial Relations Observatory

Despite the enormous social costs, it has been argued that the Balcerowicz Plan was a necessary short-term ‘shock’ to achieve the improvements in economic growth that allowed Poland to out perform most other former communist states. By 2007, Poland was ranked just outside the World’s top 20 economies based on GDP, nearly 20 places above the next best former Eastern Bloc rival, the Czech Republic. (IMF database 2008 - ) Table 5 -Dynamics of GDP, percentage changes 1990-1996




Czech Republic





































Total Economy Database – University of Groningen, Netherlands

Not surprisingly in the face of social crisis, the Solidarity sponsored government came under pressure and Solidarity the movement began to fall apart. Lech Wałęsa as trade union leader had been increasingly isolated by the Solidarity intellectuals in the Mazowiecki government. Divisions opened up within the movement and factional, nascent political parties began to be formed around key personalities. The bitter presidential elections that saw Wałęsa defeat Mazowiecki, revealed Solidarity’s divisions. The much delayed parliamentary elections of October 1991 revealed how fragmented the Polish political scene had become. As Garton-Ash has pointed out, General Jaruzelski did not succeed in dividing or destroying Solidarity, Lech Wałęsa did. What he, more than anyone, had kept together, he, more than anyone, deliberately pulled apart. (2002: 375) The compromise proportional electoral system that was produced for the 1991 election, may have guaranteed genuine democratic representation, but unlike in Hungary or Czechoslovakia it proved difficult to form a stable coalition government. Voting lists were presented to the Sejm that included 112 different organisations. 10 of these groups gained significant parliamentary representation but not one party achieved more than 12% of the vote. It was therefore impossible for even a small group of parties to form a majority government, let alone a single political party. In addition, the electoral process was so complex, an already diffident electorate stayed away. In Warsaw, the electorate was presented with 35 lists, each with multiple candidates. The first free parliamentary elections had a turnout of just 43%. Eventually a group of five parties with Jan Olszewksi as prime minister was accepted just before Christmas 1991. Over the next 18 months Poland would have three prime ministers, the last of whom, Hanna Suchocka, was defeated partly as a result of the continued dissatisfaction of agricultural and public sector workers, but with a decisive vote of no-confidence provided by the Solidarity group of deputies. The elections of September 1993, with a reformed electoral system provided a very different result. The former communists of the Union of Democratic Left (SLD) and former communist coalition partners the Polish Peasants Party (PSL) gained a clear majority. In the elections, Solidarity received only 4.9% of the votes, 0.1% less than the 5% necessary to gain representation in parliament. In the presidential elections in November 1995, SLD leader Aleksander Kwaśniewski defeated Wałęsa by a narrow margin. Poland was now governed by two former communist politicians. However, Poland despite the ex-communists running it was profoundly changed. There was to be no retreat from the policies of privatisation and deregulation which had characterised the Balcerowicz plan. For all the political and economic instability in the 1990s, the policies, if not the policy makers were reliably consistent. By the year 2000, Poland was fully integrated within the community of European nations: her trade had successfully shifted orientation from east to west; she was now a member of NATO and she had begun the process of joining the EU which was formalised on January 2004. Solidarity the trade union, continued to exist as one of a number of national unions, but with membership now measured in hundreds of thousands rather than millions. The old certainties had gone, along with the job security of the communist era. To be a Polish worker today is to live a life without solidarity. As the Gdańsk workers interviewed in 1999 argued: ‘yes we have freedom: but what good is that if you have no money to buy the shiny goods in the shops? ‘(Garton-Ash: 2002)

‘… the irony is painful. Workers started the great changes, yet have paid the highest price. Solidarity was originally a trade union, yet the result of its triumph is that Gdańsk workers are employed by their former workmates, now turned capitalist, in private firms with no trade unions at all. ‘ Garton Ash – 2002: 380

Czechoslovakia after Communism - The Velvet Divorce

On the 1st January 1993, Czechoslovakia ceased to exist. It was the third of Europe’s three communist federal states to disintegrate, after the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, though in Czechoslovakia’s case the split was carried out in a peacefully ‘velvet’ manner. Why were Czechs and Slovaks, who had supported each other against common opponents for so long, unable to sustain their shared state? Francis Fukuyama, in his influential 1989 essay, described the revolutions of 1989 as “the end of history”. The West had won the Cold War and the world could now expect the extension of democratic, capitalist systems as the challenge of communism receded. “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

There have since been many challenges to this argument, including the interpretation of 1989 as more of a ‘return to history’. From this perspective, nationalism in Central and Eastern Europe had been held in check by the disciplines of the Cold War. When the Cold War ended and Soviet centralism faded, history, in the form of long held nationalist tensions, was able to resurface. For homogenous nation states such as Poland, this was less of an obstacle than in Czechoslovakia, where Czechs and Slovaks often had different notions of the nature of their state.


Vaclav Havel interviewed in 2008

1989, inevitability and retrospective determinism

According to French philosopher Henri Bergsonretrospective determinism’ is the logical fallacy that because something has happened it was therefore bound to happen. This is not only a tendency towards historical fallacy, but is also something that can afflict participants in past events. As Garton Ash has argued:

‘... the passage of time produces its own peculiar distortions. One thing that happened rather quickly in the early 1990s was that history was rewritten—not in the deliberate, Orwellian way of communist states, but through the much more subtle, spontaneous and potent workings of human memory. Suddenly, Western politicians 'remembered' how they had all along predicted the end of communism. And suddenly, almost everyone in the East had been some sort of a dissident. The ranks of the opposition grew miraculously after the event. Former communist leaders also produced remarkable memoirs. Thus, in conversations after German unification, both the former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze and Aleksander Yakovlev, a key Gorbachev adviser, told me that they had anticipated it as early as the mid-1980s. Was there a record of that? Well no, you see, they could not have said this out loud, not even to a small group of officials—because to do so might have shaken the whole fabric of Moscow's relations with Eastern Europe. (And the difficulty for the historian is that this is also true.)’ Timothy Garton-Ash - Magic Lantern 160 •

As we have seen, a common enemy such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the Soviet Union could unite Czechoslovakia, but the idea of ‘Czechoslovakism’ failed to survive the removal of these external forces. As the larger nation, Czechs were less likely than Slovaks to question the idea of Czechoslovakia, “it was easier for them to conflate Czechoslovak and Czech identity, while for Slovaks it was clear that these were different concepts.” (26) The ‘Hyphen War’ of 1990, in which Slovaks argued that the country should be re-named “Czecho-Slovakia” was indicative of these varying perspectives. A common theme throughout the existence of Czechoslovakia, particularly under communism, had been a tendency towards ‘Pragocentrism’, which Slovaks now sought to challenge. The asymmetric model, whereby Slovak institutions, based in Bratislava, existed alongside Czechoslovak counterparts, based in Prague, had failed to obscure that it was the latter who had wielded real power. A further constitutional complication was the need for a high degree of consensus to pass new laws and the relative ease with which a minority of deputies could block legislation. When parliament only had to act as a rubber stamp for communist policy, this was not a problem, but post-1989, it lead to delays and splits, often along national lines. Among the emerging political parties, most competed for seats in either the Czech lands or in Slovakia, there was no popular Czechoslovak political force. The dominant politicians, the Czech Vaclav Klaus and Slovak, Vladimir Meciar, offered sharply contrasting solutions to Czechoslovakia’s problems. Klaus advocated a rapid transformation to free market economics, and expressed frustration with Meciar’s arguments for a more gradual approach. Havel’s efforts at mediation failed. The option of splitting the country offered both leaders a chance to pursue their policies unfettered by the other. The Czech right could pursue a more radical short, sharp shock route to economic transformation while Slovakia had to endure several years of Meciar’s idiosyncratic authoritarianism. Thus, the political elite agreed the collapse of Czechoslovakia. This occurred without violence but also without any great popular demand. There was never a referendum on the issue and opinion polls from the time do not show a majority in favour of the split. This indifference meant the split could go ahead in an atmosphere of restraint, without the violence that accompanied the collapses of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The external forces that had held Czechoslovakia together no longer existed. The prospect of EU and NATO membership offered new international frameworks within which both the Czech Republic and Slovakia could prosper.

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