TEN YEARS THAT SHOOK THE WORLD

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The Independent Culture
When the Berlin Wall came down on 9 November 1989, there was talk of a golden age of peace and prosperity. The reality has proved more difficult. With hindsight, was all that euphoria misplaced? Steve Crawshaw reflects on a turbulent decade of democracy, year by year

1989

The game had been over for at least a month before the Wall came down - ever since Mikhail Gorbachev's historic visit to East Berlin for the 40th birthday celebrations of the East German state. He kissed the Communist leader, Erich Honecker, on the cheek - a kiss of Communist solidarity, and a kiss of death."Those who delay are punished by life itself," Gorbachev told Honecker. That night, thousands of demonstrators came out on the streets of East Berlin for the first time. "We are the people!" they chanted, in a deliberately impudent provocation to the people's police, who beat them up and arrested them. "They've invited us to the birthday party, don't you see?" one man shouted down to me from the police lorry that was taking him and others away.

A few days later, the East German regime publicly threatened a Tiananmen- style reprise to an opposition protest in Leipzig. Then they realised that the demonstrators, instead of becoming frightened at the prospect of mass slaughter, had merely redoubled their numbers in anger. By November, so many retreats had been made - including blanket permission for East Germans to leave for the West, with the proviso only that the journey must pass through Czechoslovak territory - that the Berlin Wall itself had become what I called, in a piece published in the Independent on 8 November, a "redundant symbol". It was bound to go.

Yet when the Wall finally broke open, on 9 November, the politicians were astonished. ("You're crazy, Ackermann," Chancellor Helmut Kohl told the adviser who brought him the news.) And, indeed, the whole world was astonished: not just because the spectacle of so many previously oppressed Germans rejoicing with such abandon was so exhilarating, but because one of the most immutable-seeming facts of the post-war political landscape had, in the end, crumbled into history with such startling suddenness.

The collapse of the Berlin rule proved a glorious exception to the rule that good news doesn't find its way on to international front pages. It was a fairytale moment, such as Europe had not seen since the end of the Second World War. The loathed dragon that had sliced the continent in two had expired without even a last lethal flick of its tail. As souvenir- gatherers began to chip away at the now-harmless monster, the curmudgeons were briefly silent. This was a time for celebration.

In fact, the collapse of this giant political barrier was merely the most vivid example of a much greater bonfire of the certainties of 1989. Headstrong Poland (the eternal rebels of eastern Europe) and sensible Hungary (calmly picking its own route) had paved the way: Poland had achieved a non-Communist government in August, and Hungary had started tearing down the literal Iron Curtain - mile upon mile of barbed wire - six months before the Wall came down. But it was the torrent of humanity passing joyously unhindered through the impassable Them- and-Us division of the Berlin Wall which made change become inevitable and unstoppable.

Within two weeks, magic came to Wenceslas Square in the heart of Prague - the most beautiful city in eastern Europe, which for 20 years had also been one of the saddest. "Last in Europe" proclaimed the woeful graffiti, with reference to the Czechs' failure to rebel. But, as the demonstrations doubled in size each day, the people quickly caught up. The crowds held up jangling keys and tinkling bells, to remind the leadership that their time was up. After 10 days of rallies, the hardline Communist leadership gave up the ghost on a Friday night, in time for Czech democrats to enjoy an exhausted but tumultuous weekend.

Other dominoes tumbled in quick succession. Romania, with its monstrous dictator Nicolae Ceausescu (who, together with his wife Elena, had been an honoured visitor at Buckingham Palace), was determined to stop the change. The propaganda apparatus in Bucharest poured out bilious commentary on the changes in neighbouring countries, as though there was no tomorrow. For Ceausescu, there wasn't. A random arrest, of a Hungarian pastor in western Romania, set things in motion. Ceausescu, blind to what was happening all around him, tried to use force to stop the change. The result: on Christmas Day, he and his wife lay dead and unlamented in the snow.

The message of 1989 was clear: the unthinkable can quickly become the inevitable. At the end of the year, that still meant good news. The jailed Vaclav Havel was released and became President Havel in time for a New Year presidential address. Czechs revelled in their new lightness of being. Meanwhile, at an international summit in Malta, Moscow and Washington declared that the Cold War was over - "from Yalta to Malta", in the words of Gorbachev's official phrase-maker.

Those who saw themselves as sophisticated and worldly-wise suspected that there would soon be plenty of reasons to deride the optimists as naive. But, for those few enchanted months, it seemed that if you did not believe in miracles, then you did not believe in life at all.

1990

For a while, the euphoria continued. Margaret Thatcher seemed rather miffed by the fall of the Berlin Wall, with its implications for German unity. But as far as most politicians were concerned, this was a time for optimism on a grand scale.

Thus, when Gorbachev sent tanks into Baku, the capital of the Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, killing more than 100 people, President Bush remained unfazed: he praised the fact that Gorbachev was still strong.

The Baltic states, annexed by Stalin in 1940, were similarly cold-shouldered. When the parliaments of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania renewed their vows of independence, Gorbachev was apoplectic - and Western politicians backed him.

These stand-offs were ultimately to develop into full-scale confrontations: I vividly remember the party atmosphere in Riga, the Latvian capital, as crowds awaited what they assumed would be a massacre. ("My children are all grown up," a forester's wife, Privite, told me. "I'm not afraid for myself. Why should I be?") But although Soviet tanks would subse-quently mow down civilians in Lithuania, and although Thatcher and others urged the Balts to modify their stance, there was no going back.

Nor was there in Germany. At the beginning of the year, even economic union between East and West seemed unthinkable. But history was still moving at startling speed. By July, the Deutschmark was the legal currency in East Germany, and the sickly home-grown currency was melted down. Helmut Kohl danced diplomatically cheek to cheek with Gorbachev for several months more. Finally, on 3 October, the two Germanies became one.

1991

The distraction of the Gulf War meant that the West hardly noticed when Soviet tanks mowed down 13 civilians outside the Lithuanian parliament in January. By August, however, the ex-Warsaw Pact countries had once again seized the world's attention, as a group of Soviet hardliners decided that it was time to reverse the tide of liberalisation.

The coup plotters shared with Western politicians the belief that only Gorbachev was responsible for the changes now taking place. In reality, once the clottish would-be saviours of Soviet Communism had locked Gorbachev up in his Crimean holiday villa, there was more change in the next few days than in the previous five years. Gorbachev returned to Moscow to what he thought would be a hero's welcome. To his dismay, the Communist Party was officially dead by the end of the week; the de facto independence of the Baltic states was recognised by the end of the month; and, after Ukraine voted for independence in December, the Soviet Union itself was dead by the end of the year.

The failure of the Soviet coup was generally seen as another triumph for the forces of good. Elsewhere, however, the news was getting worse. The chaotic revolution that ousted Albania's Stalinist rulers in the spring attracted little international attention. By the summer, though, Albania's already miserable economy had gone into freefall, and tens of thousands fled illegally in leaking ships to Italy. Words like "tragedy" began to be used. Yet compared with the events that were starting to unfold elsewhere in the Balkans, Albania's troubles would soon seem insignificant.

The Serb leader, Slobodan Milosevic, had begun his ascent to power a few years earlier, preaching nationalism in the Albanian-majority province of Kosovo. But not until spring 1991 - when US Secretary of State James Baker warned that he "would not permit" Yugoslavia to fall apart - did Milosevic get what he took to be a green light to use violence against the Yugoslav republics of Slovenia and Croatia, in order (theoretically) to keep the federation together. Yugoslavia had fared relatively well under Communism. Yes, it was a one-party state - but it was an affluent one-party state where almost anything was tolerated, from nudist beaches to the works of Solzhenitsyn. Fear and brutality had not been part of the daily diet. That was all about to change.

In October, the Yugoslav army bombarded the old city of Dubrovnik, known as "the pearl of the Adriatic". Then they besieged and razed the little town of Vukovar, in eastern Croatia. The mass killings of civilians in Vukovar marked what seemed to be a sickening low point. In retrospect, it was merely a warm-up.

1992

Despite Milosevic, the optimism generated by the fall of the Wall had not yet evaporated. A few hours' drive north of Dubrovnik, the Czechs and Slovaks followed up their velvet revolution of 1989 with a velvet divorce.

Elsewhere, however, there was a strong sense of moral abdication. The West did not wish to know the extent of the evil that was being committed in the Balkans. Visiting Sarajevo during those months was like witnessing a political eclipse of the sun; darkness unrolled and approached from the horizon at a frightening speed. The bouffant-haired psychiatrist Radovan Karadzic - who had seemed mad and bad, but powerless when I first met him in Sarajevo the previous spring - now wielded enormous power.

When I visited Sarajevo in the spring of 1992, the climate of fear was already strong, as paramilitary extremists such as Zeljko Razjnatovic ("Arkan") began to flex their muscles. By the time of my next visit, in July, the Serb stranglehold was absolute. The long and lethal siege had begun. Out in the countryside, meanwhile, the Serbs opened detention camps for Bosnian Muslims where torture and killing was routine. When photographs were published of emaciated, terrified inmates, the world finally became interested in what was happening. Just three years earlier, miracles had taken place all across eastern Europe; now, courtesy of Milosevic and his local henchmen, the nightmares had begun.

1993

The solidarity which had helped Boris Yeltsin and the Russian parliament to defy the coup plotters' tanks together was long gone. Tensions exploded repeatedly between the new president and his parliament, culminating in an extraordinary role reversal in September, when forces loyal to Yeltsin fired on the parliament in order to crush a revolt by MPs. Depending on your take, this was either the destruction of Russia's fledgling democracy, or a last bid to preserve it from politicians who themselves would stop at nothing; either way, it was a reminder that the shockwaves of the political earthquakes that destroyed Communism were still causing dangerous instability.

1994

The Hungarians caused alarmed headlines when they voted their ex-Communists back into power, but the effect was less shattering than some feared. The new-look Communists, here as elsewhere in central Europe, were committed to stability and, if possible, membership of the EU and Nato.

The same could not be said of Russia. In Moscow, there were the beginnings of a free-market economy - but this merely meant a yawning gap between the grotesquely wealthy and the desperately poor. Corruption was rife. For millions of ordinary Russians, trying to make ends meet was a thankless task. Prostitution was the new boom industry: polls suggested that a majority of Russian girls believed it to be an attractive career option. Dark-glass limousines cruised the streets, while armed thugs were routinely stationed inside and outside expensive boutiques to protect the new rich. KGB officers moved from locking up dissidents on behalf of Communism to becoming big- time money-makers, with scarcely a pause for breath. The fascist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky - a comic buffoon one day, a dangerous lunatic the next - was becoming increasingly influential. Finally, to round off a bad year, Yeltsin sent tanks into the breakaway Caucasian republic of Chechnya and bombarded the capital, Grozny, into ruins.

1995

The Kremlin's assault on Chechnya continued for several months, as each new Russian attack rallied more people to the hitherto unpopular cause of Chechen independence. After tens of thousands of deaths, Moscow achieved a kind of victory, but not a permanent one.

In central Europe, the tough economic policies of the early 1990s were beginning to pay off, but former Yugoslavia remained locked on a course of tragic self-destruction. In July, Serb forces drove thousands of Muslims out of the little town of Srebrenica and slaughtered them, almost under the eyes of Dutch UN peacekeepers. Subsequently, talks at the US airforce base in Dayton, Ohio, forced Milosevic into a compromise Bosnian peace deal. Meanwhile, Serbs in Croatia - on whose behalf the war against Croatia had allegedly been fought - were themselves brutally ejected by Croat forces. The Belgrade lie machine concealed the scale of the humiliation. But it was clear that Milosevic, the proclaimed saviour of the Serbs, had brought disaster not just to others, but also to his fellow-Serbs.

1996

The Serbs withdrew from parts of Sarajevo, and left devastation in their wake. Then, late in the year, simmering resentment of the Serbian regime exploded, when Belgrade refused to recognise local election results in which Milosevic's party had been trounced. Huge daily demonstrations brought a whiff of Wenceslas Square to Belgrade, and on Serbian New Year's Eve, hundreds of thousands packed into the city centre, where they deafeningly sounded the whistles which - like the little bells rung in Prague seven years earlier - were supposed to call time on the extremists. I have not seen Belgrade so happy, before or since. For a moment, it really did feel as though Serbia might break free.

1997

And then it was all over. The Zajedno ("Together") coalition that ran the Belgrade protests splintered amidst mutual recrimination. Milosevic made tactical retreats and re-emerged almost as strong as ever. The only opposition leader who retained any popular credibility was the Zhirinovsky of the Balkans, Vojislav Seselj, who became deputy prime minister. It was as if that glorious New Year's Eve had never been.

Elsewhere, the news was mixed. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic seemed settled firmly into stable, moderate and increasingly prosperous regimes, with a remarkable variety of consumer goods in the shops which, even more remarkably, Mr and Mrs Average could afford. But in Albania there were violent anti-government riots after tens of thousands lost their savings in fraudulent pyramid schemes. Some began to wonder if overthrowing Communism had been quite such a good idea after all.

1998

The Serb economy was in a disastrous state, even after sanctions against Serbia were lifted. For Milosevic to keep his grip on power, it was necessary for Serbs again to be distracted from their grim situation. Violence in Kosovo was just what the political doctor ordered. By the spring, the rumbles of the approaching war were already beginning to be heard; but the West, characteristically, seemed reluctant to focus on just how hideous the explosion was likely to prove.

In Russia, meanwhile, the international financial crisis hit like a hurricane in August, and the rouble went into free fall. Vogue, whose first Russian- language edition was advertised all over Moscow, cancelled its huge and glitzy launch party at the last moment. It was too late to cancel the magazine itself. The show must go on. And let the gangsters rejoice.

1999

Ten years on, the memory of the last glorious months of 1989 has begun to seem like a distant, long-lost dream. When Nato began its airstrikes against Serbia earlier this year in order to force a settlement in Kosovo, Milosevic's forces upped the ante. Rapes and massacres became routine, in more or less explicit defiance of Nato bombs. Hundreds of thousands of Albanians were driven out of their homes, and dumped passport-less at the Macedonian and Albanian borders. Those who safely crossed the border were exposed to dismal conditions in horrifically overcrowded camps, where even water was in short supply. Tens of thousands more trudged through the mountains into neighbouring Montenegro.

The Nato bombing, backed by the growing threat of a ground invasion, finally forced Milosevic to capitulate. But the aftermath was almost as messy as what came before. As in Croatia, Serbs whose families had lived here for centuries were driven out of their homes simply for being Serbs; Albanians who remained friendly with Serb neighbours were punished by the thugs of the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Opposition demonstrations began (again) against Milosevic; but, as so often before, they have failed to gain sufficient momentum. There are grumblers galore, but few know what they want. The tiny reformist republic of Montenegro has become the last corner of former Yugoslavia to seek to break free from Milosevic's suffocating embrace. The Montenegrins' minimum demand is for a new form of federation, in which Milosevic would no longer hold the whip hand. It seems an unlikely hope. If Milosevic remains in power, yet another Belgrade-led war is on the cards.

Astonishingly, too, Russia has relaunched its failed war against Chechnya, while 10 days ago the assassination of Armenia's prime minister revived the spectre of further conflagration in the Caucasus.

If one focuses on these most dramatic events, it seems as though the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall has been incomparably bleak. The new world order is in ruins, and tragedy seems to be the only lasting truth that has emerged from it. But the dramas are only part of the story. Russia and Yugoslavia continue on what sometimes seems to be an indefinite downward spiral. Much of the rest of central and eastern Europe is, however, on a roll.

In the early 1990s, Western analysts scoffed at the radicalism of Poland's economic reforms. But the new poverty was only part of the picture. In Poland, democratic socialists and conservatives alike understood that tearing up the old political and economic fabric was certain to be painful. Better for it to happen sooner rather than later. Within just a few years, the policy was bearing fruit. All the indicators confirm that Poles now enjoy a standard of living that was unthinkable in 1989. Together with Hungary and the Czech Republic, Poland has reached the elite inner waiting room for membership of the European Union - a prospect unthinkable for even the most crazed optimist 10 years ago, when the walls came tumbling down.

As we enter the 21st century, there is both hope and despair. The countries which have been most successful economically have been those which have retained a sense of responsibility for their own destiny and have tried to show tolerance to their neighbours. Russia and Serbia, the two countries which have done worst economically, are those which have behaved worst to their immediate neighbours. They are also countries which spend an inordinate amount of time blaming others for what has happened. Despite brief and wondrous flashes of self-knowledge - in Russia in 1991 and in Serbia in the winter of 1996 - both countries seem determined to wallow in the perceived injustice of their fate.

They have failed to learn the fundamental lesson of 1989: when you and all your countrymen have nothing but contempt for your government, it is time to choose another government which has higher standards of basic decency. It is no coincidence that the two countries where gangsters enjoy almost unlimited power are also the countries whose governments behave like gangsters.

The future is not yet written. For much of central Europe, the prospects seem glowing. For Russia, things may not be as bad as they seem: until a few years ago, the country had never seen democratic elections. It is hardly surprising if the transition has been difficult. As for Serbia: do not underestimate the role of the individual in history. While Milosevic is in power, the country does not have a hope. Once he is gone, the process of detoxification can begin. For the moment, it scarcely seems credible that a sane Serbia can emerge. But it is possible that, by November 2009, 1999 will be seen as the ultimate low point, from which the recovery began. One thing that was amply demonstrated in 1989, and in the years that followed, is that nothing is as impossible as we think.

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