Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Other Voices

"Early in the presidency of George Bush, there came the most dramatic developments on the international scene since the end of World War II.  In the year 1989, with a dynamic new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, at the head of the Soviet Union, the long suppressed dissatisfaction with "dictatorships of the proletariat" which had turned out to be dictatorships over the proletariat erupted all through the Soviet bloc.

There were mass demonstrations in the Soviet Union and in the countries of Eastern Europe which had long been dominated by the Soviet Union.  East Germany agreed to unite with West Germany, and the wall separating East Berlin from West Berlin, long a symbol of the tight control of its citizens by East Germany, was dismantled in the presence of wildly exultant citizens of both Germanies.  In Czechoslovakia, a new non-Communist government came into being, headed by a playwright and former imprisoned dissident named Vaclav Havel.  In Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, a new leadership emerged, promising freedom and democracy.  And remarkably, all this took place without civil war, in response to overwhelming popular demand.

In the United States, the Republican party claimed that the hard-line policies of Reagan and the increase in military expenditures had brought down the Soviet Union.  But the change had begun much earlier, after the death of Stalin in 1953, and especially with the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev.  A remarkably open discussion had been initiated.

But the continued hard line of the United States became an obstacle to further liberalization, according to former ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan, who wrote that "the general effect of the cold war extremism was to delay rather than hasten the great change that overtook the Soviet Union by the end of the 1980s."  While the press and politicians in the United States exhulted over the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kennan pointed out that, not only did American policies delay this collapse, but those cold war policies were carried out at a frightful cost to the American people:
We paid for forty years of enormous and otherwise unnecessary military expenditures, We paid through the cultivation of  nuclear weaponry to the point where the vast and useless nuclear arsenal had become (and remains today) a danger to the very environment of the planet . . ." 
- Howard Zinn, from A People's History of the United States 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

November 25, 1989

A week after the Czech police kill a single protester, Martin Smid, 350,000 people are peacefully marching in Wenceslas Square, and bring down an entire system of government.  Say what you will, but non-violence works.

Also, $0.40 for the day's newspaper.

Monday, November 24, 2014


What's the point of this 25-years-ago retrospective, other than historical curiosity?  Two things:
  1. Regimes, no matter how powerful, fall if they don't change with the times (impermanence), and
  2. People, even under the most repressive of conditions, can bring about non-violent change.
In an interview that ran 25 years ago today in The Boston Globe, Jan Bisztyga, then the official spokesman for Poland's Communist Party, said that as technology had accelerated, even then, at an unprecedented pace, the world simply passed communism by.

Communism's great weaknesses, he maintained, were its inability to perform economically, its inability to reform when changes were obviously needed, and its inability to "change old-fashioned views of society."  The world had become too pluralistic for the kind of black-and-white thinking that had kept the Eastern bloc in a straitjacket.  
In other words, the weaknesses that caused the fall of communism were the same shortcomings political conservatives in the United States suffer today.  Today's capitalist conservatives look at the events of 1989 as a condemnation of socialism, and Bisztyga freely admitted, "There is no future to the kind of bureaucratic socialism I am representing now." But the conservative assessment captures only 50% of what was wrong.  Bisztyga said that he was still optimistic about the future of socialism, "just not this kind of socialism."  The failure of bureaucratic socialism was not in the socialism, but in the inherent inertia of a bureaucracy that could not adapt to the changing times.

In contrast, Bisztyga noted, the West stood up to the tremendous speed of technological change with high flexibility and dynamism.  "You put all your energies into this, and you won."

But there is a price to pay, Bisztyga warned, and the bill will eventually come due in the West.  The United States had badly neglected education, concentrating on an elite instead of on a broad base of educated people that an advanced country needs.  If the United States were to maintain its position as a great country, Bisztyga said, it would have to take money away from right-wing causes, such as armaments, and give some back to education and the environment, just as the Eastern bloc had to dismantle central planning and install individual initiative and free markets.  Thus, the two sides might eventually meet somewhere toward the middle.

Instead, the U.S. has chosen to double down on military expenditures, abandoning even the pretense of equal educational opportunities for all, and has continued to neglect its infrastructure and the environment. As income inequality continues to grow rampant, this kind of inflexible thinking may bring this nation to the same crossroads that the Polish Communist Party found itself in 1989, and people in the West may have to rise up and bring about the same kind of non-violent change that rocked eastern Europe 25 years ago.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

25 Years Ago Today

Press clipping from 1989

Although a Warsaw Pact nation, Romania had pursued an independent foreign policy from Moscow since the 1960s, when it banned Soviet troops from its soil and refused to join the other Soviet bloc troops in the 1968 occupation of Czechoslovakia.  In the 1980s, Romania paid back all of its estimated $10 billion foreign debt, but at a substantial drop in the standard of living for the country's 23 million people.  Under the government's rationing policy, Romanians were each allowed only one pound of meat and 10 eggs a month.  

"Political independence, self-sufficiency in economy and increased exports should maintain (Ceausescu) in power now," one western diplomat who asked not to be identified told the UPI in 1989.  But, he said, when the European Union forms in 1992 and foreign investment in Romania tapers off, the nation will be facing tough economic problems.

But 25 years ago today, the Romanian Communist Party congress was continuing into its third day, and praising Nicolae Ceausescu as a visionary and a genius, while denying all of the hardships and troubles its people were suffering under his leadership.  As it will turn out, Ceausescu will not survive to see the 1992 formation of the EU, or even the first day of the 1990s. 

In Hungary, a book, Petty Tyrants, revealed the corruption prevalent in the military, claiming local army chiefs were free to requisition anything they needed from the local population, including clothes, textiles, and food .  The revelations led to resignations of some military chiefs, and Prime Minister Miklos Nemeth ordered former defense minister Gen. Lajos Czinege to vacate his "service apartment."  The apartment was in fact a luxurious, expensively furnished villa on Rose Hill, Budapest's most exclusive residential district.  

In East Germany, the Communist Party agreed to hold talks with rival political groups on free elections and other reforms, a major concession to the opposition, and the unrest and protests that hd continued to grow despite the opening of the Berlin Wall and the lifting of travel restrictions.  But despite the agreement, the reputation of Communist Party Chief Egon Krenz was still plagued by his long partnership with former Chief Erich Honecker, and other party officials suggested that he may have to be replaced as Party Chief if his popularity didn't improve.  

Saturday, November 22, 2014


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,  They 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.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Those Who Cannot Remember The Past Are Doomed To Repeat It

Following the dramatic events of 1989 in Germany, protests erupted in the former Czechoslovakia in the greatest threat in decades to the rigid, hard-line communist government, leading 25 years ago today to the largest demonstration in the country since the Soviet-led crack-down on the Prague Spring reform movement of 1968.

Before the massive November 21, 1989 protests, Slovak high school and university students organized a peaceful demonstration in the center of Bratislava on Thursday, November 16.  But the next night, Friday, November 17, an estimated 20,000 to 50,000 demonstrators who had been given permission to march if they avoided Wenceslas Square, a favorite site of past anti-government protests. were viciously attacked by police using tear gas and clubs.  The violence erupted when some of the demonstrators disobeyed the order and defiantly headed for the square, and police beat the demonstrators, forcing them to run a gauntlet down Narodni Street.  

Martin Smid, 20, a student at Charles University, was beaten to death during the crack-down by red-bereted paratroopers of the Czech military.  Smid's girlfriend reportedly told activist Petr Uhl that the paratroopers singled Smid out for unknown reasons and pushed the couple against a wall.  "Two or three (paratroopers) took him into a dark side street and beat him with batons, then kicked him while he was on the ground," Uhl said.  The government denied that Smid was beaten to death, and detained Uhl for spreading "false rumors." Nevertheless, the movement now had a martyr.

The next day, Saturday, November 18, about 2,000 people confronted riot police in Wenceslas Square.  The protesters, undaunted by the crackdown of the night before, were blocked from entering Narodni Street by scores of helmeted riot police, and witnesses said that at least three people were chased, beaten by troops, and taken away in vehicles.  The protesters chanted "Freedom, Freedom" and other slogans and then, before dispersing, called for additional demonstrations.  

The people responded on Sunday night, when tens of thousands of people filled Wenceslas Square to mourn Smid's death.  The protesters built makeshift shrines, lit candles and laid flowers on the Narodni Street site where Smid had been beaten.  They then moved en masse across a bridge spanning the Vltava River, heading toward the ancient Hradcany Castle where government offices were located.  The police, who had stood quietly by during the protest in the square, quickly blocked the marchers' path with police vans on the other side of the bridge.  The crowd, which included parents holding small children and people in wheelchairs, began to jeer the police saying, "You killed the student, will you kill again?"

Eventually, the police gave way, and the crowd, relishing their victory, began clapping as they headed back to the square.  The movement had reached a tipping point of popular acceptance, and the police stayed out of sight as the people continued the massive demonstration, ringing bells and jangling keys.  Someone placed a banner reading "Don't Kill Our Children" at the base of the statue of King Wenceslas.  

Then on Monday, November 21, 1989, exactly 25 years ago today, more than 200,000 people filled the streets of Prague, demanding free elections and the resignation of hard-line leader Milos Jakes. The protests were accompanied by the clanging of bells from sympathetic trolley car drivers and bystanders jangling their keys in solidarity, and in a sharp break with tradition, Czech television devoted extensive coverage to the demonstration.  Some of the protesters carried banners reading "Red Murderers to Court" in reference to  Martin Smid.   Students also began a sit-in strike at Prague universities to protest the police attacks, and television reporters told of strikes at some high schools.
The Velvet Revolution was underway in Czechoslovakia.  Meanwhile, in a direct challenge to the Kremlin, the Georgian Supreme Soviet declared that the republic was illegally annexed by military force in 1921 and reasserted its right to secede from the Soviet Union.  In Sofia, a crowd of about 2,000 people listened to fiery political speeches and signed petitions denouncing Bulgaria's communist regime.  In the U.S., a poll found Americans cautious about the changes sweeping Eastern Europe, and indicated that while most felt the changes were permanent, they were not yet dramatic enough to declare an end to the Cold War.       
At a major Communist Party congress in Bucharest, Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu made it clear that as long as he was in charge, Romania would not follow other Eastern European countries along the paths toward democracy and capitalism.  By Christmas Day, a secret military trial will have found Ceausescu and his wife guilty of genocide and other grave crimes against Romania, and both will have been executed.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Always Reliably Incorrect Dick Cheney

Budapest, 2004
Writing in a May 17, 1989 editorial in The Wall Street Journal, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Albert Schweitzer professor of the humanities at the City University of New York and a winner of Pulitzer Prizes in history and biography, lamented the "strange thought floated the other day by Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney that he doesn't expect Gorbachev to last and, because 'somebody who will be far more hostile' may replace him, we should be in no hurry to deal with him."  

Actually, when you think about it, Schlesinger pointed out, Cheney advanced an argument for reaching agreements with the Soviet Union while Gorbachev is still around, not an argument against agreements with him.  "The prospect of hostile leadership should spur us on to institutionalize arms control agreements while there is still time," Schlesinger advised.

One has the impression that President George H.W. Bush, "a man of unimpeachable good will," according to Schlesinger, "is the prisoner of a bunch of foreign policy hacks whose idea is to meet every new problem with old cliches."

I've stated here before that conservatism is a neurological condition marked by an inability to form new mental maps and models in the face of new conditions.  Schlesinger's view of Bush's 1989 cabinet reinforces that view.