On 9th November the world celebrated the 25th anniversary of, probably, the most significant event in recent European history – the fall of the Berlin wall. For decades, it stood not just as a physical division between East and West Germany but also as a symbol of division between East and the West. It was also the symbol of the ‘Iron Curtain’ that separated democratic Western countries from communist Eastern Europe.
The fall of Berlin wall was one of the series of events that marked the end of Soviet supported authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe. The changes started in the mid-’80s when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev started his policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring). This took away the threat of Soviet intervention in other socialist countries.
The Polish communist regime was the first to collapse when it signed an agreement with the Solidarity movement and paved the way for free elections. By June 1989, the Polish people had elected their first non-communist head of government. Next was Hungary, where soldiers dismantled barbed wire and fencing along its borders with Austria. Hundreds of East Germans went to Hungary on a holiday and crossed over to Austria. In August, two million people in the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania formed a human chain against the Soviet rule. In October, during his visit to East Berlin, Gorbachev advised East German leader not to delay reforms. After days of mass protests, the East German government on November 9th declared that citizens were free to go the West. This led to thousand of East Germans moving into the West, and literally tearing off the wall. These events led to further changes in other socialist countries, the unification of Germany, and finally the collapse of Soviet Union itself in 1991.
Immediately after these changes about 30 countries in the former Soviet Union and Central-Eastern Europe started their political and economic transition towards democracy and market economy. Some scholars even announced that that this was the end of history. It was thought that most countries will now be living in peace and contentment within the vision of a universal liberal, capitalist and democratic system.
A quarter of a century on, we now realize that some of these predictions were too optimistic. After an initial period of economic decline, some of these countries have become members of Western institutions and organizations like the European Union (EU), North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In most of these countries, citizens enjoy higher living standards and broader political and personal rights.
For some others like the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, the process has been much more difficult as these changes also led to a break up of old nations into many new independent countries. The civil war in former Yugoslavia and Tajikistan in the 1990s and the current crisis in Ukraine shows that the process of change which started through peaceful revolutions in 1989 has not been truly peaceful. Moreover, a large number of vulnerable people in many of these countries also faced serious economic difficulties due to a steady decline of state support and subsidies. There are still significant differences between East and West Europe, even between East and West Germany.
The 1989 vision of partnering prosperous Europe has become somewhat hazy. Economic decline throughout Eastern Europe in the 1990s and then long delays in getting the EU membership created tensions. Many Eastern Europeans thought that they will become members of the EU within a few years. The first group of countries was admitted to the EU only in 2004, almost 15 years of after the fall of Berlin wall. A few others like Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia joined later in 2006 and 2013 respectively. Countries like Albania and Serbia are still waiting.
When these countries joined the EU, they also committed to join the single currency whenever they are ready and fulfilled convergence criteria of low inflation, low interest rates, low fiscal deficit and stable exchange rate. A few smaller countries viz. Estonia, Latvia, Slovenia and Slovakia have even joined the Eurozone. However, crisis in some of the Eurozone countries in the last few years have made many others skeptical. When the EU itself is facing one of the biggest crises since its inception, the earlier assumption that deepening integration with the EU institutions would automatically mean rising living standards and social security may no longer be valid easily. Euro-Skepticism, once a British decease has now entered even in some former socialist countries. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban argues, however, that his country “is not Euro-Skeptic But “Euro-Realistic.” There is a talk of authoritarianism in a country which used to practice liberal “goulash socialism” even during the Soviet period. Moreover, nationalism is on the rise in many parts of Europe. Across the continent, nationalist parties or movements gaining ground in recent years.
The fall of the Berlin wall also coincided with the collapse of the USSR and end of the Cold War. Even in changed circumstances, NATO did not disappear. It found new justifications and adapted itself to new challenges. Many old Warsaw Pact countries also became its members. But now when old super powers the US and Russia are threatening each other again, NATO has found a renewed sense of purpose. At the recent NATO summit in September, it declared that “Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine have fundamentally challenged our vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace.” It also declared that the NATO “remains an essential source of stability in this unpredictable world”. So even 25 years after communism’s fall, NATO is still active even in European security.
Despite these ups and downs, overall changes since 1989 have been a remarkable success. The majority of citizens in the former socialist countries do not want to go back to earlier economic and political system. The new generation is more optimistic about their future within a united Europe. It also reminds us of the peaceful resolution of the Cold War. As Oxford professor Timothy Garton Ash wrote recently, “it has given us what is, politically, the best Germany we have ever had” and the “fall of the Wall has become a kind of master metaphor of our age.”
(The author teaches at JNU and is currently the ICCR Chair on Contemporary India at the University of Leuven, Belgium)
–The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author
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