On Aug. 13, 1961, the Berlin Wall was erected, thereby dividing overnight a city, families and dueling ideologies for the next 28 years. On Nov. 9, 1989, the world watched as jubilant crowds gathered on both sides of that Wall to celebrate the opening of its crossings. Germany’s postwar division was over.
Next month, we mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To commemorate that event, Western News asked five scholars to reflect on its meaning a quarter century out.
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Twenty-five years ago, when the Berlin Wall was coming down, I was a PhD student at Oxford. I didn’t own a TV. So, like many others, I crowded into the common room to watch the historic event.
There was such anticipation in the air. Would ‘people power’ win this time? Would the brave individuals who stood up to an oppressive regime succeed in toppling it?
There had been attempts in the past when people stood up to communism. Ukrainians and others sent to the Gulag in the Norilsk Uprising of 1953. Hungary in 1956. Czechoslovakia in 1968. Poland in 1980. Each of these times, the people were crushed by force.
Yet, 1989 was different.
The wave of opposition was strong and the communist regimes had become corrupt and weak. A reformer, Mikhail Gorbachev, ruled the USSR. It was his declaration of reform that prompted people in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union to push for change.
And they succeeded. Within a year, all the east European communist regimes had fallen, peacefully, through elections, with the one exception of Romania, where the hated Ceausescu was executed on live television.
A year later, in a different part of the world, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The following year, in 1991, the USSR, what Harvard professor Serhiy Plokhii called the ‘Last Empire,’ imploded peacefully. And 15 new states appeared on the map where the Soviet Union once was. Soon afterwards, apartheid ended in South Africa and Mandela was elected president in 1994.
Although the post-communist transitions were difficult, and former Yugoslavia descended into violent wars, overall, the early 1990s were years of optimism. Democracy was on the rise, totalitarian, repressive regimes were being toppled, and the international community embarked on a period of peace and prosperity.
American political scientist Francis Fukuyama went so far as declaring the ‘End of History’ – that liberal democracy and market economics had become the final form of human government.
Twenty-five years later, the world is a very different place.
I still don’t have a TV, but now have a PhD student, who is working on a dissertation in Ukraine. Last year, she, and many others, stood up to a corrupt president in what has become known as Ukraine’s revolution of dignity. And they succeeded in toppling Victor Yanukovych.
But their victory was soon overshadowed.
A week after Yanukovych fled to Russia, Russian president Putin invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. When there was almost no international reaction, he began pushing into eastern Ukraine, using proxies in what analysts are calling a hybrid, undeclared war. People continue to be killed every day in Ukraine. Ukraine’s new president Poroshenko continues to seek peace, but it does not appear that Putin is willing to stop sending arms, fighters, and money into Ukraine, and shelling from across the border.
Why is Putin doing this?
In 1989, he was posted in Dresden, East Germany, working for the KGB in their intelligence-gathering unit. He had a close-up view of how people rose up against a communist regime and succeeded.
Shortly after coming to power in 2000, Putin declared he would restore order and Russia’s former glory. The Yeltsin 1990s had left the Russian Federation a sloppy, corrupt, semi-democracy, despite having made strides in international cooperation. Russia was welcomed into the G-7, which became the G-8, and established a working relationship with NATO through the Partnership for Peace program.
Perhaps most importantly, Russia, under Yeltsin, established good relations with all of its neighbours.
This all changed when Putin became president. He went on record as saying the collapse of the USSR was the worst disaster of the 20th century, and told U.S. President George W. Bush that Ukraine was not really a country. Domestically, he gradually curtailed the democratic freedoms Russians had gained in the 1990s, but failed to deliver prosperity.
Much of the analysis of Putin’s aggression against Ukraine has focused on his foreign policy pronouncements, desire to re-establish regional hegemony, disregard of international law.
But the timing of the aggression against Ukraine is equally, perhaps more significant. In February 2014, he watched Ukrainians topple a corrupt president through massive public demonstrations. A week later he invaded.
As I write this, Ukrainians are preparing to go to the polls and elect a new parliament. Despite the war being perpetrated against them, they are using democratic means to move forward.
Like people did 25 years ago.
Marta Dyczok, a Western professor joint appointed in History and Political Science, specializes in international politics and history, with a focus on east central Europe and Eurasia, and specifically Ukraine.