Guarini Institute Panel Discussion: 30 Years After 1989 and a Week After the European Elections

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On Monday, June 3rd, 2019 the Guarini Institute for Public Affairs held an event entitled “Europe: 30 years after 1989 and a week after the vote.” The speakers were Angela Brintlinger, Director of the Center for Slavic and East European Studies at Ohio State University; Petr Mucha, professor at New York University in Prague and Program Coordinator of Forum 2000 Conferences, and Caterina Preda, assistant professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of Bucharest. Guarini Institute Director Professor Federigo Argentieri moderated the event.

The panel discussion gave the audience an overview of the 1989 situation in different countries governed by communist regimes and began with opening remarks by JCU President Franco Pavoncello. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the arrival of the European Union (EU) led to a significant transition, one that political science Francis Fukuyama called the ‘end of history’, which meant the victory of capitalism and globalization over communism. The end of a world divided between capitalism and communism created the conditions that determine our lives today and bring up questions about the relationship between democracy and populism, as well as the future of the EU.

Professor Argentieri pointed out that also in 1989, the violently suppressed Tiananmen Square protests took place in China. He also mentioned that it was the anniversary of the first quasi-free election in Poland. The results of that election marked a turning point in the history of the communist regime in the Soviet Union. Professor Argentieri then concluded that the contradictions we see between the elections in Poland and the Tiananmen Square protests taught us a lesson to be retained today as well: a mass popular protest against a dictatorial regime can be defeated by the use of force (China), or be victorious in the medium term (Poland 1980-1989) and lead to a peaceful transition.

Europe 30 years after 1989 - A Guarini Institute Panel Discussion

Europe 30 years after 1989 – A Guarini Institute Panel Discussion

Professor Angela Brintlinger provided the audience with an insider view of the situation in Soviet Russia in the late 80s, when she was a student first in Leningrad, then in Moscow. She recalled how she witnessed a significant amount of brainwashing among not only the American students, but also her Soviet counterparts: both sides were taught not to trust each other. For example, American students were advised to encrypt their phone calls and be suspicious of their surroundings, whereas some Soviet students were still unaware of the events detailed in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, which had been banned in the USSR. She pointed out that it was clear that the Communist regime would not go anywhere, but at the same time, there was a sense of hope starting to arise among the population.

In 1989 Professor Brintlinger returned to a completely new Moscow. The economic system was falling apart, requiring the introduction of rationing, while at the same time the sense of freedom was increasing, and people had the opportunity to read previously-banned publications and even read them out loud in public places. Moreover, Professor Brintlinger also witnessed freedom of expression, including several art exhibitions and screenings of formerly-banned films in Moscow. She observed that although people put much hope in a peaceful transition, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a massive wave of violence erupted throughout its territory. It is also noteworthy to mention that although the USSR separated itself from its Empire (the so-called satellites, Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc.), it did not fully separate from its republics (Ukraine, Estonia, Georgia, etc.). She argues that today we have evidence that Russia intends to secure its dominance in several former Soviet republics, as we saw with the situation in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014. Professor Brintlinger concluded that although there was a move towards true democratic transition, the legacy of Soviet Russia and its imperialistic, totalitarian regime is still in place today.

Professor Mucha gave an overview of the situation in former Czechoslovakia at that time. He said that although there was huge discontent with the communist regime, the population was quite paralyzed. The best description of this totalitarian regime run by fear can be found in Václav Havel’s essay The Power of the Powerless essay of. Professor Mucha also listed three main factors that contributed to the success of the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. First, a  strong dissent movement led by brilliant intellectuals such as Václav Havel. Second, student movements that became catalysts of change and expressed the desire to act against the totalitarian normalization of the Stalinist regime. Lastly, the importance of external factors, such as the wave of solidarity movements in Poland and Perestroika in the Soviet Union. Interestingly, one of the strongest supports to the leaders of the dissent movement was provided by Pope John Paul II when he permitted an unorthodox canonization of Agnes of Bohemia, a princess in the Czech Kingdom who later became a nun. It was at the core of popular belief that when Agnes of Bohemia would be canonized, righteousness and justice would come back to the country. Indeed, she was canonized on November 12, 1989 – 5 days before the student revolts in Prague. Among the modern challenges the country is facing, Professor Mucha described the rise of nationalism along with economic and political transformations.

The panel discussion was concluded by Professor Caterina Preda. She discussed the end of the communist regime in Romania after 1990, what followed afterward, and the situation today following the European elections. The paradox of the Romanian democratic transition was the degree to which it seemed that the communist party was disrupted, and its leaders were eliminated, only this is not what happened. The elites of the old regime were transformed only to adapt to the new regime. She then argued that continuity with the past for a certain period of time became the framework within which the Romanian democracy has evolved. Professor Preda also pointed out that there is another paradox connected to the present situation, which has to do with the strong desire of being close to the EU and keep the country away from the old communist legacy. Despite these intentions, Romanian politics still appears very closely linked to the past.

Finally, she concluded with an optimistic outlook on the 30-year process of democratization in Romania and hopes for maintaining the Eurocentric direction of Romanian politics.

(Kamila Sabyrrakhim)