|Bookmark found in my Grandfather's encyclopedia. 1905: That's Teddy, baby!|
On November 22, 1989, according to my collection of newspaper clippings from that date, more than 150,000 protesters filled Wenceslas Square in Prague to protest the former Czechoslovakian government and for the first time, opposition leaders were given access to the loudspeaker system in the square, In five days, since the Bloody Friday events that triggered the massive protests, the government had gone from beating the protesters to grudgingly handing them a microphone.
Vaclav Havel, a playwright and leader of the Czech opposition, was joined on a spotlighted balcony overlooking the square by other opposition leaders and some of the country's most popular actors and singers, who helped read a declaration demanding the immediate resignation of the Czech leaders responsible for the 1968 Soviet invasion, as well as those who ordered the Bloody Friday crack-down, It also called for the release of all political prisoners and for free access to the media.
In Russia, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev indicated strong backing to the rapid changes in Eastern Europe, including the new demands for reform in Czechoslovakia, saying, "I think the change is very important, and the importance of the change will be that it will create a better society, a more open society, a more democratic society." In a related incident, Gorbachev also oversaw the dismissal of conservative Moscow Communist Party chief Lev Zaikov, nearly two years to the day after liberal chief Boris Yeltsin had been removed from the same post.
Meanwhile, a debate was brewing in East Germany over whether or not Communist Party chief Egon Krenz actually prevented a potential massacre by reversing Erich Honecker's orders to Leipzig police to shoot, if necessary, pro-democracy protesters. While his supporters claim Krenz did reverse the order, his detractors say he did so only after being persuaded by local party officials and church leaders. At the same time, the press, although still under Communist control, had begun reporting to the impoverished East Germans some of the abuses of privilege enjoyed by the party leaders. Krenz was rumored to be a connoisseur of fine wines and other luxuries, although he claimed to the press that he and his family lived in a small, modest apartment. What he didn't admit was that he had only moved into the apartment the Sunday before, checking out of a spacious abode at the party's lush Lake Wandlitz compound on the outskirts of Berlin, a settlement blocked off from ordinary citizens by guarded private roads.
Back in the U.S., the White House announced that refugee status for Poles and Hungarians would be sharply curtailed as political conditions in those countries had improved to the point where the residents "no longer have any reason to fear persecution in their homelands."
In Romania, where people did still have reason to fear persecution, the ill-fated dictator Nicolae Ceausescu attempted to sir up nationalistic support for his dictatorship by claiming that the non-aggression pact of 1939, in which Stalin and Hitler divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence, should be cancelled. "First of all," he said, "a clear, unequivocal stand of condemnation and cancellation must be taken on all the accords concluded with Hitler's Germany, practical conclusions being drawn to eliminate all the consequences of those accords and dictates." The 1939 non-aggression pact ceded the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to the Soviet Union, but Romanians understood that what Ceausescu was really talking about was Bessarabia, a contested sliver of land between Romania and the Ukraine that changed hands many times through history, but had been a Romanian possession from 1919 until 1940, when it was absorbed into Soviet Moldavia.
A bit of deeper history regarding Bessarabia is necessary here, and my sources for this portion are not my newspaper clipping from 1989, but a 1942 encyclopedia and summary of "current events" inherited from my grandfather. According to my sources, during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78, Romania fought alongside the Russian troops but at the Treaty of San Stefano after the war, Russia demanded the Bessarabian territory from Romania, even though it was largely inhabited by Romanians. As compensation, Russia offered Romania the Dobjura, a region along the Black Sea. The Treaty held and was reinforced by the 1878 Congress of Berlin, such that Romania lost Bessarabia but gained the Dobjura,
After World War I, Romania invaded Hungary in 1919 and occupied Budapest, retreating only when Romania had extorted territorial concessions, including the return of Bessarabia from Russia. To protect the new acquisition, Romania felt the need for foreign security and became a member of the Little Entente, a treaty with Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, to protect her against Russia and possible attack from Hungary. In April 1939, to further protect its rich oil fields and Bessarabia from Russian aggression, Romania received pledges for assistance from England and France.
However, after the fall of France to Germany in 1940, Russia did not hesitate to move and delivered an ultimatum to Romania for the immediate return of Bessarabia, and two days later moved troops into the region, meeting "some little resistance." On July 1, 1940, Romania announced the evacuation of Bessarabia and at the same time the abrogation of the mutual assistance pact with England. The greater part of Bessarabia was made into the Moldavian Republic and admitted into the Soviet Union on August 2, and the remainder was added to the Ukrainian Republic. On August 1, 1940, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov boasted of the gains. which largely returned territories taken from Russia in World War I.
In 1989, with the neighboring countries engulfed in revolutionary protests, Ceausescu appeared to be trying to maintain control and popularity by asserting nationalistic claims to Bessarabia. Romania's official press published accounts of unrest in Moldova, where 60% to 75% of the people were ethnic Romanians and much of the unrest was due to nationalistic sentiments, and Scinteia, the Communist Party daily, described a crackdown on ethnic Romanina demonstrators in the Moldavian city of Chișinău several days earlier. Throughout Ceausescu's five-hour speech, delegates reportedly jumped out, shouted slogans, applauded, and sat back down in unison. There were reports that Ceausescu even urged the Warsaw Pact to consider invading Poland, but those reports were not confirmed.
"Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it," George Santayana warned us. Ceausescu's appeals to old territorial claims and his concern about the plight of ethnic brothers and sisters in neighboring lands is eerily reminiscent of Putin's more recent comments and actions in the Ukraine. It seems that Putin is merely following Ceausescu's old playbook, which in turn has been used by dictators throughout history.