In 1989 one party regimes crumbled in six countries in Eastern Europe. Within a few weeks there were massive political changes in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania. The Eastern Bloc, which the Soviet Union had dominated, was finished.
The 1989 revolutions showed that seemingly permanent political regimes can collapse very quickly. They showed that revolutions can spread rapidly from country to country.
They also showed that a political revolution limited to the introduction of parliamentary democracy is not enough to fundamentally transform society.
For that to happen democratic change must reach deep into the heart of the economy – into every workplace linking workers in every industry – and ordinary people must disarm the generals.
The political downfall of the regimes did not mean that there was great enthusiasm for the new Western-style market economy. And the longer time has gone on the less people have liked it.
Workers were disoriented at first but not cowed. In Romania miners were brought to Bucharest in 1990 to beat up protesting students. But a year later they returned and brought down the government.
In Poland Solidarnosc (Solidarity) – the union that spearheaded the struggle against the old regime – argued for workers to accept the market reforms. This became less effective as workers experienced the devastating results of privatisations and cuts.
The poor economic conditions meant that politicians had scope for providing superficial solutions. Czechoslovakia broke up into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992.
By 1989 the economies of nearly all the post-Communist countries had shrunk – Ukraine by 60 percent. The exception was Poland – but workers were facing mass unemployment.
This reached 20 percent in the new century with 60 percent of the population below the “ordinary” poverty line and 13 percent below the extreme minimum line. Unemployment is only now beginning to fall, helped by the emigration of job seekers, which is estimated at two million people.
To win elections parties in the region have to hide their intentions to a greater extent then before. Today in election campaigns the term liberal or neoliberal is the worst insult.
The picture in the different countries is mixed with unemployment rising in Hungary and falling in Poland. The economies of eastern Europe all share a higher level of integration with the global economy than before 1989.
Contrary to market hype this is not necessarily good news. According to Varel Freeman, first vice-president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, central and eastern Europe will not escape from the effects of the current global market turmoil.
The East European revolutions were helped by the difficulties and divisions in the Soviet Union but also fed back into the crisis there. In 1991 the Soviet Union fell apart. The Warsaw Pact, the military alliance with the Eastern Bloc, fell apart with it.
The West worked to strengthen its geopolitical power. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined Nato in March 1999 just in time for the organisation’s 11-week bombing campaign against Serbia.
The European Union (EU) expanded to make itself an even more competitive force in the global system. In 2004 the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia (formerly part of the Soviet Union) joined the EU as did the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia (formerly part of Yugoslavia).
Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007. Ordinary people hoped that this would mean Western living standards for them. Instead it has meant that it is possible to travel to the West to work for very low pay while paying high rents for overcrowded accommodation.
There is no equality of nations within the EU. Workers from Bulgaria and Romania are allowed into fewer countries than workers from other countries to work legally. Neither country has yet been allowed to join the Schengen area where borders between EU countries have been removed.
The EU’s anti-immigrant racism can sometimes backfire in unpredictable ways. After Schengen was introduced last December the border controls in the east have been tightened in line with maintaining the EU as “Fortress Europe”.
The increased workload on customs’ workers has provoked the current protest actions in Poland, such as taking sick leave and holidays, which has led to huge tailbacks of lorries.
In the last few weeks this action along with a victory for the majority of miners, strikes and protests by nurses and a big demonstration of teachers in Warsaw is encouraging a wave of protest among other workers, demanding substantial pay increases. Tesco workers in Poland are also threatening strikes over pay.
In Hungary the government is worried by last year’s upsurge in strikes against its austerity reforms. In December there was a public sector strike. Unions are threatening further action and a rail strike is planned.
Today the rulers of the east European countries show a loyalty to the US and western Europe that recalls their former servility to the Soviet Union. They see this as a way to enrich their wealthy, strengthen their states and become more competitive.
Poland has led the way in this – it was one of four states to take part in the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. But the others are not far behind.
All the “post-Communist” countries have engaged in Nato’s murderous occupation of Afghanistan. But the populations are not so keen on participation in imperialist wars.
The biggest demonstration in the region against the war on Iraq in 2003 took place in Hungary when 30,000 people marched after the government had tried to ban the protest in Budapest.
In Poland there were two anti-war demos in 2003 of about 10,000 each.
The rise of the movement against globalisation in the new century has also fuelled ideological searching. In Poland we even saw an anti-capitalist demonstration of 10,000 people in 2004.
More recently the US is attempts to reignite the Cold War by locating its missile shield in the Czech Republic and Poland have sparked opposition. These have been most impressive in the Czech Republic where thousands of people have protested in recent months.
The movement includes the League of Mayors Against the Radar. This is the first social movement to spread beyond Prague since 1989. These movements need a political focus otherwise the beneficiaries of resistance from below will be the establishment parties.
The populations of the eastern European countries are generally to the left of the politicians. This is often true even of people who do not like to be called left wing because the term has connotations with the repressive past.
Those with illusions in the former Communist regimes and some of the former members of the old Communist parties can help build a radical alternative. In Germany members of the post-Communist PDS are doing just that.
Activists seeking to build a new radical left must take all this into account. The issues are, are people against cuts? Do they support strikes? Are they against the US-led occupations and missile shield?
Do they oppose discrimination of women and minorities? If so then unity can be built. Attitudes to the past regime are of secondary importance.
The events in Hungary in September 2006 show the urgency of building such an alternative. Tapes revealing Socialist Party prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány admitting to lying and his intention to attack workers and the poor enraged people and led to protests.
Because the radical left was so weak the centre-right and the Nazis dominated the protests.
We also have to build the forces of the revolutionary left. Here clarity and accuracy in our ideas is vital, as is keeping both eyes open for the opportunity to engage new people in campaigns and build a broad political alternative.
However quiet it may be in any one country we have to be prepared for future economic and political earthquakes.
Luckily for us, in building a political alternative we can base ourselves on the existing revulsion against wars, the support for strikes and the search for a sane society.
Andy Zebrowski is a member of Pracownicza Demokracja (Workers Democracy) in Poland
Pracownicza Demokracja website (in Polish) » www.pracdem0.republika.pl