Ten years after the Central European revolutions of 1989, what more do we know? Above all, we know more about the consequences. We can now say that these events had results that place 1989 beside 1789 as a date in world history. Not only was the peaceful revolution that leapt from Poland to Hungary to Germany to Czechoslovakia the beginning of a swift and fundamental change of system in the countries of Central Europe. 1989 also meant the end of the cold war, which had started in the 1940s over these same countries. As a result it directly affected many other regions of the world, such as Southern Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central America, whose politics had been deformed by the global competition between the Soviet Union and the United States, cap-italism and communism, “East” and “West.” In fact, it is difficult to find a country in the world that was untouched by the end of the cold war.
Moreover, what happened in Central Europe in 1989 hastened the end of the Soviet Union. Just a few months later, the Baltic states declared their independence. In Central Europe, Gorbachev and his colleagues had been robbed of the precious illusion that ‘89 could be a happier replay of the Prague Spring of ‘68, with reformist leaderships building “socialism with a human face” in Prague, Berlin, Warsaw, and Budapest. Now they were swiftly deprived of another illusion. In relation to the Soviet Union’s external empire, in what was then usually called Eastern Europe, the Soviet Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennady Gerasimov had wittily enunciated a replacement for the old Brezhnev Doctrine. He called it the Sinatra Doctrine, slightly misquoting the old crooner: “You do it your way,” he said. However, the Gorbachev leadership still thought the Sinatra Doctrine could be applied to the extended empire but denied to the internal empire—that is, to the constituent parts of the Soviet Union itself. Where the Baltic states led, the republics of the Transcaucasus, Ukraine, and, most important, Russia under Boris Yeltsin would follow.
The connection of the velvet revolutions to the collapse of Europe’s other communist multiethnic federation, Yugoslavia, is less direct. Here, Slobodan Milosevic was stripping Kosovo of its autonomy even as the Poles gathered at their round table. The destruction of Tito’s country had its own fearsome internal dynamic. Yet the end of communism in Central Europe certainly precipitated the end of the party that had held Yugoslavia together. The Yugoslav League of Communists was effectively dissolved at its Fourteenth Special Congress in January 1990. It is hard to imagine the subsequent bloody dismemberment of Yugoslavia unfolding in the same way if there had still been a global competition between East and West.
Nineteen eighty-nine also caused, throughout the world, a profound crisis of identity on what had been known since the French Revolution of 1789 as “the left.” It prompted many to ask the question pithily formulated by the political philosopher Steven Lukes: “What’s left?” What’s …