The lessons of 1989


Unfortunately, the results of 1989 are not entirely positive. While the satellite countries of Central and Eastern Europe have achieved independence and democracy, the countries of the former Soviet Union have been unable to surmount their totalitarian legacy.  The post-Communist world has developed along a two-tiered pattern, with the satellite states developing the institutions of democratic governance, free expression, and civil liberties, and  many of the countries that emerged from the Soviet Union succumbing to forms of single-party rule, press censorship, corruption, and outright thuggery.  

Especially disturbing is the emergence of a reinvigorated and adaptive form of authoritarianism, a much more modern and dynamic system than the exhausted Leninism that prevailed in Communism’s final years.  As elaborated in Russia, this revivified authoritarianism combines elements of the capitalist market and broad private freedoms with sophisticated methods of  media control, the marginalization of the political opposition, and outright repression against potential adversaries.  As we take note of the very real achievements of 1989, we ignore the less positive dimensions of that year’s legacy at our peril.  

We should also use this historic moment to reflect on the role that the United States and its democratic allies played in the “long twilight struggle” of the Cold War.  Of course, the United States made  some serious mistakes during those 40-plus years, most notably in irresponsible talk of “liberation” during the struggle’s early period.  In fact, though, while we did not use the “l” word in our formal diplomatic vocabulary after the failed Hungarian Revolution,  we never abandoned the ultimate objective of freedom for the satellites.  We showed what was for Americans an unusual patience in keeping the faith through many years.  We made small but important gestures, like refusing to recognize the Soviet incorporation of the Baltic states.  We maintained funding for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in the face of strong Soviet protests. When a freedom movement with broad national support did come to the surface, as Poland’s Solidarity trade union did in 1980, the United States provided material and moral aid.  We did all this even as we conducted serious negotiations over nuclear arms and other critical strategic issues with a thoroughly militarized Soviet Union.  

We now find ourselves at another moment when the enemies of democracy present a challenge to the world.  For the United States, then, the lessons of 1989 are altogether relevant.  First, we are in the struggle for the long haul.  Second, our rhetoric should not exceed our capability to help.  Third, our values demand  solidarity with those who are challenging repression, even if expressed   obliquely or through sources outside the government.  Fourth and finally, the Cold War experience is a stark reminder that engagement and the promotion of human rights and democracy are mutually reinforcing, and not mutually exclusive.  

Arch Puddington is Director of Research at Freedom House.

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