Wednesday, 28 October 2009

People Power in 1989 ... and Today

Did civil resistance bring about the end of the Soviet Empire? That was the question posed before a distinguished panel at the British Academy in London last night. Former Polish defence minister, and leading Solidarity figure, Dr Janusz Onyszkiewicz was joined by the former British General Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank, and the Oxford professors Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton-Ash. The latter are editors of the newly launched publication Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present.

Given the gathered experiences of the panel, the discussion naturally centred on eastern Europe, and in particular, the night of the 9th November 1989 in Berlin. This was the moment when the borders between east and west Berlin were forced open and, in the wake of the resignation of the government, the communist authorities' plan for a controlled passage of only a few dozen 'refugees' to the west was overtaken, and overpowered, by the gathered will of hundreds of thousands of people.

Lord Guthrie, the head of the British Army in east Berlin on the night in question, described the feeling of being carried by the surging, singing and dancing crowds, as they swept down Unter Den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate. His relationships with his opposite numbers among the GDR and Soviet military had led him to believe there would be no brutal repression of the uprising, as in past times. He was proved correct. The handful of soldiers stationed on the border refused to open fire on the massive crowds, or even to perform rudimentary passport checks. The dreaded concrete was breached and, in one epic movement, the Iron Curtain torn down.

A less impulsive, but equally momentous process of people power had been happening in Poland for years. Dr Onyszkiewicz described how several tributaries of civil resistance built up, gathering into a flow of opposition before combining to force democratisation. Having had demonstrations violently suppressed by the authorities in the 1970s, the opposition learnt to maximise the effects of their actions by gradually gathering resources, pointedly avoiding the open conflict that formerly been their failing.

Instead of facing troops, for example, the 1980 Gdansk shipyard held a sit-in strike. This more refined, controlled approach paid dividends. Led by Lech Walesa, encouraged by the church, and combined with the organisational skills honed during the 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II, the Solidarity movement - as the opposition had become known - gained not only millions of members but serious concessions over the course of the next decade: unions were officially recognised; pamphlets were circulated; high-level links were established with the Polish Politburo.

Even imposition of martial law in the early 1980s did not significantly hamper the groundswell of civil resistance that was gathering. Even before the floodgates were opened in Berlin, limited elections followed by defections had handed Lech Walesa the unique role of the only non-Communist leader of an authoritarian Communist state.

Such narratives are imbued with ambiguities. How far can people power fully explain the events in Gdansk, Warsaw, Leipzig and Berlin? Where are the limits of civil resistance? Unavoidably, economics has a large part to play. As is well-documented, the situation within the Soviet economic sphere contributed significantly to its eventual downfall. Decades of mismanagement and overspending on defence had left it in a critical state. Garton-Ash noted how the Carter administration had begun to tie IMF loans in the Eastern Bloc to factors such as human rights, thus directly linking the internal treatment of civil society to economic conditions.

For these and other reasons, Gorbachev was reluctant to intervene directly when dissident movements struck in 1989. Surprisingly, Garton-Ash stated that the Soviet leader actively discouraged the leaders of Eastern Bloc countries from doing so too. As Dr Onyszkiewicz added, the effects of civil resistance may have been drastically different had this policy been reversed.

The media had a part to play too, often catalysing actions on the ground into something more powerful. A prime example was the West German newsreader who began his 9th November evening news broadcast with a cryptic message, hinting that the frontier gates had been opened. Although this wasn't strictly true, large amounts of east Berliners could receive both the television and the coded signal. The rumour soon spread, and many thousands gathered on the streets.

The panel underlined the relevance of the topic to the present day. The 'Colour Revolutions' of the 21st century - in the Ukraine, in Iran, in Burma - have largely ground to a halt. Why then, the panellists were asked, has democratisation not occurred in these places? The simple answer, is that the world has changed. Although critical information is more readily available via outlets such as the internet and satelite television, that information is also more readily controlled. Do Google, for example, have to answer for helping Chinese authorities limit the spread of dissent? Has the new media landscape - so lauded in developed countries as an educational, 'inherently democratic' device - become a tool of repression?

The altered geo-political situation, as shown by today's multipolar power politics, is another key factor. It is not that the developed world does not express its desire for democratisation. However, the leverage its leaders, medias and populations once exerted to bring about that change, has been diluted. This fact is linked inextricably to a more globalised economy. In another age, as Carter and Reagan well knew, the US President could control how developing countries acted via economic pressure. Now, mass manufacturing and internal markets such as India and China are central to the global and US economies. Likewise, energy-rich regimes such as Russia and Saudi Arabia can leverage the actions of more democratic but energy-dependent states. Bilateral alliances between these regional powers, and the spread of nuclear weaponry, further muddy the waters.

If one lesson can be taken from last night's discussion, it is that only time will tell whether civil resistance alone can effectively bring about democratisation and regime change. If true change is to come to people still living in repressed circumstances, or without a vote, it will not simply be a matter of gathering together in suitably large numbers. Multiple, perhaps infinite, factors were involved in producing the momentous events witnessed across eastern Europe in November 1989. An alternative, more provocative, conclusion is that it is democracy itself rather than authoritarianism which is now outdated, and that other methods of gaining political and civil freedom should be explored.

Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present is edited by Sir Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash, and published by Oxford University Press.

David Williamson explains why events in the ancient German capital twice threatened to unleash a third world war, in Berlin: The Flash-Point of the Cold War, 1948-1989

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