With the benefit of hindsight, however, Nicolae Ceausescu's downfall was not only the end of an era but also a warning of the difficulties which Eastern Europe would experience in its post-communist transformation.
While Romania's sad experience is partly due to the country's history, the absence of social organisations and a pliant Orthodox church, elsewhere in the region the post-communist reform has been more profound and also more peaceful. Everywhere, though, with the singular exception of the Czech republic, former Communists have either returned to power or are about to do so. In this respect, the plight of Romania, which has not experienced a real change of regime at all, is merely a more acute expression of a wider regional problem.
Not that there is any danger that Eastern Europe will return to dictatorship, for the monolithic single-party state has been defeated by everything from technological advances to economic interdependence. The choice that faces Eastern Europe today is notbetween dictatorship and democracy, but between a truly open society that is constantly adaptable, and an authoritarian, paternalistic form of government in which economic freedom is not always accompanied by political change.
Despite all the brave talk and innumerable literary tomes, democracy is not a system of government but a way of life. It depends on free elections, unshackled media, and a proper division of political power. Helped by the armies of Western constitutionalexperts who have descended on the region since 1989, Eastern Europe now enjoys all the formal trappings of democracy. In the last analysis, though, a durable democracy is one born from below, one created by people who instinctively believe in tolerance and self-restraint. It cannot be imposed from above, by intellectuals determined to "teach" people how to live democratically. Five years after the fall of Communism, the people of Eastern Europe are rejecting not so much democracy as the models imposed on them in 1989.
The transformation of Eastern Europe is not only a political and constitutional enterprise. It is still an effort to remodel societies and nations from scratch, while rebuilding shattered economies at the same time. The chances that the entire process could be managed smoothly were always very slim.
It was a superficial judgement to assume that Eastern Europe was divided between Communists (who should be avoided) and "democrats" who should be encouraged. In essence, most east Europeans were simultaneously passive opponents and potential collaborators of the former Communist regime. All hated their oppressors, but all had to pay lip service to authorities which, at least until 1989, appeared both omnipotent and immutable. The West's obsession with a few dissident intellectuals was not shared by mostEast Europeans. Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel are Western heroes: in the East they are mere politicians with their own personal interests and declining popularity. A new political class will emerge in eastern Europe but this will taketime.
The same applies to the creation of a market economy. Western governments and financial institutions preached the virtues of the market economy, massive privatisation and "shock therapy". This strategy may be correct: Poland, which launched itself into this experiment faster than many others is already reaping the benefits, while Romania and Bulgaria, which believed that the process should be slowed down, ended up with unemployment and inflation, but few of the benefits of the market.
Economic reform is not an only technical matter. How many Western leaders would have contemplated the pulverisation of their people's lifetime savings, or the creation of millions of unemployed in a few years? The people of Eastern Europe did not choose Communism; it was imposed on them by Soviet bayonets. Having been treated as the testing ground for a failed ideology, they are now expected to create capitalism without capital.
Former Communists are back in control because they are the only politicians willing to tell their electorates that the last four decades were not entirely wasted. All East Europeans now know that the billions of Western aid money are never going to materialise; hanging on to a supposedly predictable past is often the only protection they have against an unpredictable future.
And yet, none of these difficulties should be disheartening. For just as the optimism of 1989 was misplaced, so is the pessimism of today. Indeed, most of the dark predictions about Eastern Europe have been disproved over the past five years. The Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia broke apart, but in all three the very identity of the state was questioned. Moreover, the East Europeans have managed to eliminate their almost complete dependence on Soviet trade within five years, a stupendous achievement. And finally, despite huge drops in their personal wealth, the people of Eastern Europe have never resorted to violence.
The process of reform will continue; there is a stronger consensus for the market economy in the East than there ever was in the West. Even the Communist dinosaurs in Romania will ultimately be swept away. For Western governments, the most important taskis to have patience, and push the process along, but with more consideration and humility. Eastern Europe is far from being a disaster. Sustained, ethnically related bloodshed has a greater tradition in Northern Ireland, the Basque country or Corsica, than in Bratislava or Transylvania. The best support that the Eastern Europeans can be given is integration into existing institutions. This is the same process that enabled Germany to emerge from dictatorship and ruin.
The most important message from the revolutions of 1989 is that the process which swept away the Communist regimes has affected all Europeans, on both sides of the continent. Everywhere, the relationship between rulers and ruled is changing; political parties are grasping for new ideologies. The East Europeans tore away their dictatorships with their own hands and, in so doing awakened all Europe from its Cold War hibernation. Their problems are now ours, too.
The author is Director of Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.