The collapse of repressive regimes was unexpected and sudden. In April 1989 an accord between factions in Poland had promised free elections, and in August the first non-communist head of an Eastern bloc nation was elected prime minister.
In Hungary, glasnost was warmly embraced, and its parliament passed legislation to legalize freedom of assembly, speech, and association. In October 1989 the Communist party formally dissolved. In Czechoslovakia police initially crushed the largest anti-government protests since 1968, but protests continued, taking to the streets in Prague to demand free elections.
On November 24, 1989, the entire Communist party leadership resigned, and in December the first cabinet in more than forty years without a communist majority took power, choosing the playwright and human rights campaigner Vaclav Havel (1936— ), a man who had spent nearly a decade in communist prisons, as president. Even isolated Albania, not part of the former Soviet bloc, moved tentatively toward greater freedom, allowing many of its citizens to travel abroad and in 1990 restoring the right to practice religion. In 1992 Albania elected a non-communist president.
The transition from communist dictatorship went less smoothly in Romania and East Germany. Nicolae Ceausescu, who had shown much independence from the Soviet Union as Romania’s president since 1967, had become increasingly repressive. All industry had been put under state ownership, state farms owned nearly all of the arable land, and conservative Marxist economic policies had crushed individual initiative.
Pollution was widespread and health problems severe. Inspired by protesters elsewhere, a large group assembled in the city of Timisoara, and on December 16, 1989, at Ceausescu’s command, his hated security forces opened fire on the demonstrators and buried hundreds in mass graves. Protests spread rapidly, and the Romanian army joined in the rebellion rather than cooperate with the security forces. On December 22 a group calling itself the Council of National Salvation overthrew the government, and the next day, following a trial for genocide, Ceausescu and his wife were condemned to death.
Chaos also marked the transition in East Germany. In October 1989, Erich Honecker (1912-1994), longtime East German party leader, faced with mounting demonstrations, a faltering economy, charges of widespread party corruption, and the proposed withdrawal of Soviet troops, resigned under pressure. East Germany opened its border with Czechoslovakia, and thousands of East Germans sought to leave.
On November 9 the government agreed to issue exit visas, and the last of the infamous Berlin Wall came down in the midst of wild celebration. Parliament revoked a constitutional clause assuring the Communist party a leading role in the nation, and the new premier promised free elections and a multiparty system. The chancellor of Western Germany, Helmut Kohl, called for a confederation of the two Germanys and in March 1990, a slate that supported Kohl won the elections.
A non-communist government was installed in April, and at a meeting with Gorbachev in July the Soviet Union gave its blessing, in exchange for $10 billion in economic aid, while the two Germanys and the four original Allied occupying powers jointly guaranteed Poland’s postwar border with a united Germany. The last obstacles to the reunification of Germany were removed, and on October 3, 1990, the two Germanys declared themselves one. All foreign troops were withdrawn in 1994.
The final collapse of communism in the Soviet Union came rapidly and dramatically. On August 19, 1991, communist hard-lines attempted a coup, seizing control of the press and television, declaring that Gorbachev was ill, and replacing him with the vice-president.
The Russian republic’s president, Yeltsin, denounced the coup, called for a general strike, and rallied the Russian people, who barricaded the Russian Parliament. Massive protests in Moscow and Leningrad, world-wide denunciation of the coup leaders, and declarations of noncompliance in several of the Soviet republics brought the coup toppling down, and on August 21 Gorbachev returned to Moscow.
By then Yeltsin had demonstrated his popularity and courage to the world and had emerged as the dominated political leader. Three days later Gorbachev resigned as head of the Soviet Communist Party, disbanded its leadership, and in effect ended communism’s seventy-four year reign.
Reform had begun first in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s denunciation of Stalin had freed the satellite states to criticize communist rule, and all of eastern Europe had moved out ahead of the Soviet Union in dismantling communism, largely in the space of eighteen months.
This collapse of a monolithic communist bloc placed further pressures upon the Soviet Union to change. The West was now to some extent reunited, with no Western bloc or Eastern bloc. Into the 1990s formerly communist nations struggled to realize their ambitions of free market economies despite little experience and virtually no infrastructure.
Still, grave problems remained. People in eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union had little experience with free market economies, and inflation soared. With the removal of authoritarian restrictions there was a flowering in countercultures, the arts, and free enterprise; there also was a rapid increase in crime and corruption. Former communists often won reelection under other party names. Ethnic conflict broke into the open: Slovakia separated from the Czech state in 1993, and Russia found itself faced with breakaway movements in numerous areas. The bloodiest dissolution was in Yugoslavia, however.
The Yugoslav disintegration was particularly rapid. Early in 1990 the Communist party renounced its constitutionally guaranteed place in society and asked Parliament to move to a multiparty system. On June 25, 1991, Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence, and fighting between Croats and ethnic Serbs broke out in Croatia.
Serbia sent arms to the Croatian Serbs. In 1992 Serbia and Montenegro declared themselves the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. War broke out between ethnic Serbs and others in Bosnia, which had a large Muslim population. In southern Serbia Albanians in Kosovo declared their independence as well. Bosnian Serbs, supplied by Serbia, shelled Bosnian cities, especially Sarajevo.
In an effort to end the bloodshed, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Serbia and Montenegro. After Bosnia and Herzegovina declared their independence, Serb forces turned to “ethnic cleansing”—the systematic massacre or removal of Muslims and other non-Serbs.
Despite an accord signed in 1994 to create a Muslim-Croat confederation in Bosnia, the fighting continued, with the Bosnian Serbs taking control of two thirds of the country. There seemed little prospect for a lasting peace in 1995.