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1989 Revolutions

Fall 2009 marked the 20 year anniversary of the collapse of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. The Revolutions of 1989, sometimes called the "Autumn of Nations," was a revolutionary wave that swept across Central and Eastern Europe in the autumn of 1989, ending in the overthrow of Soviet-style communist states within the space of a few months. The political upheaval began in Poland, continued in Hungary, and then led to a surge of mostly peaceful revolutions in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria. Romania was the only Eastern-bloc country to violently overthrow its communist regime and to execute its head of state. The Revolutions of 1989 greatly altered the balance of power in the world and marked (together with the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union) the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the post-Cold War era.

The Democratization of Bulgaria, 1989-1991

At the very moment when the Cold War’s most famed symbol – the Berlin Wall – was literally being torn down, Bulgaria’s iron-fisted leader for thirty-five years, Todor Zhivkov, resigned from power on November 10, 1989. This event marked the beginning of modern democratic reforms in the country. Opposition parties, independent trade unions, and an independent media were quickly established. Eventually, roundtable talks began between the government and the opposition, and this set the stage for free elections for a Grand National Assembly, which had as its task the drafting of a new democratic constitution.

Similar to the other countries of the former Soviet bloc, Bulgaria embarked on the road of political and economic liberalization in order to make the rule of law and regard for human rights possible. The Support to East European Democracies (SEED) Act passed by the Congress in 1989 authorized financial support to Central and East European countries. U.S. Government foreign assistance to Bulgaria has been channeled primarily through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). U.S. Government has contributed over $450 million to Bulgaria through 2003. Humanitarian assistance accounts for an additional $60 million. Other practical steps taken were the Trade Agreement signed in 1991 and the expansion of the activities of the Peace Corps in Bulgaria.

The U.S. Embassy in Sofia was instrumental in promoting democratic practices in the country by providing technical assistance to newly created democratic political parties and independent newspapers, and also by initiating direct people-to-people contacts between official U.S. institutions and non-governmental bodies and their Bulgarian counterparts. This assistance made the elections in June 1990 and October 1991 the first steps along the road to democracy.

On the official level, President Zhelyu Zhelev visited the United States and had talks with President George Bush in 1990, as well as the official visit to Sofia of Vice-President Dan Quayle – the first-ever such high-level visit to Bulgaria.

China: Tiananmen Square

Protests by students in China began with the death of disgraced Communist Party chairman Hu Yao-bang (Hu Yoa-pang) (1915-89), a liberal reformer ousted in 1987 for not halting student demonstrations for democracy and human rights. In Beijing, university students eulogized Hu as a symbol of "modernization" and made peaceful daily marches of protest to Tiananmen Square, where they openly danced and debated over politics and corruption.

Fearing their communist legitimacy threatened by the pro-democracy movment, the government leaders under Deng Xiaoping (1904-97) ordered military forces to disperse the crowds and regain control. Supported by tanks and other armored vehicles, helmeted soldiers moved into Tiananmen Square and other Beijing neighborhoods late Saturday night June 3, 1989, and in the early morning hours the next day began throwing tear-gas shells and chasing students and others from the square. Some protesters held fast behind barricades, fighting with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Troops began firing their AK-47 assault rifles at the mobs, while tanks fired their cannons indiscriminately down thoroughfares.

Within hours on June 4, the square was virtually emptied of all protesters, and hundreds of wounded were hustled away among smoldering vehicles and debris. The Chinese government proclaimed a great victory over "counter-revolutionary insurgents," and later issued harsh martial laws ordering the arrest of pro-democracy leaders and dissidents, similar to the practices in the Chinese "Cultural Revolution." It is estimated that thousands of citizens were killed that day in Beijing. Chinese leaders since have largely silenced democracy and human-rights advocates, many of whom have been jailed or exiled.

Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution

The "Velvet Revolution" refers to a non-violent revolution in Czechoslovakia that saw the overthrow of the Communist government. It is seen as one of the most important of the Revolutions of 1989.

On November 17, 1989, riot police suppressed a peaceful student demonstration in Prague. That event sparked a series of popular demonstrations. By November 20 the number of peaceful protesters assembled in Prague had swollen from 200,000 the previous day to an estimated half-million. A two-hour general strike, involving all citizens of Czechoslovakia, was held on November 27.

With the collapse of other Communist governments, and increasing street protests, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia announced on November 28 that it would relinquish power and dismantle the single-party state. Barbed wire and other obstructions were removed from the border with West Germany and Austria in early December. On December 10, President Gustáv Husák appointed the first largely non-Communist government in Czechoslovakia since 1948, and resigned. Alexander Dubček was elected speaker of the federal parliament on December 28 and Václav Havel the President of Czechoslovakia on December 29, 1989. In June 1990 Czechoslovakia held its first democratic elections since 1946.

The term "Velvet Revolution" was used internationally to describe the revolution, but it was largely used internally by the Czech side of the country. After the dissolution of the nation in 1993, Slovakia used the term "Gentle Revolution", which is the term that Slovaks used for the revolution from the beginning. The Czech Republic continues to call it the "Velvet Revolution".

from Wikepedia

East Germany: The Peaceful Revolution

Starting in the mid-1980s, demands for political change were being voiced in the GDR, as in other countries of Eastern Europe, encouraged by the perestroika policy of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

In Leipzig, people had been gathering at the Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas' Church) every Monday for peace prayers, part of a program initiated in 1980 called "Peace Decade." Then, in September 1989, people began to gather in front of the Nikolai Church for candlelight vigils after the prayers, in peaceful protest against the government, and the crowds grew from week to week, until October 9, 1989, when 100,000 people marched peacefully through the city.

The "Monday Demonstrations" spread to other cities in East Germany, increasing pressure on the government. Under increasing criticism, the East German government tried appeasing public opinion. To reduce the "contradiction" between the Party line and public perceptions, the Party admitted publicly that its regime was not popular and forced the resignation of Erich Honecker, Chairman of the Council of State of the GDR (the equivalent of President), on October 19, 1989.

Meanwhile the wave of refugees leaving East Germany for the West had increased and had found its way through Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The politburo decided on November 9 to allow refugees to exit directly through crossing points between East Germany and West Germany. Politburo member Guenter Schabowski gave a television interview during which he announced this. When a reporter asked when this would apply, Schabowski replied "As far as I know effective immediately, without delay." Within minutes, crowds of East Germans gathered at the border checkpoints, demanding to cross. In order to avoid violent confrontations, the border was opened. Over the next weeks, people came to the wall with sledgehammers to chip off souvenirs; eventually the remainder of the wall was removed, leaving only a few short sections and watchtowers standing as memorials.

Hungary: Transition to Democracy

Hungary's transition to a Western-style parliamentary democracy was the first and the smoothest among the former Soviet bloc. Hungary had been one of the more progressive of the Warsaw Pact countries, allowing multi-candidate elections in 1985.

In 1988, Janos Kadar was replaced as General Secretary, and that same year, the Parliament adopted a "democracy package," which included trade union pluralism; freedom of association, assembly, and the press; a new electoral law; and a radical revision of the constitution, among others. The Soviet Union reduced its involvement by signing an agreement in April 1989 to withdraw Soviet forces by June 1991.

National unity culminated in June 1989 as the country reburied Imre Nagy, his associates, and, symbolically, all other victims of the 1956 revolution. A national roundtable, comprising representatives of the new parties and some recreated old parties--such as the Smallholders and Social Democrats--the communist party, and different social groups, met in the late summer of 1989 to discuss major changes to the Hungarian constitution in preparation for free elections and the transition to a fully free and democratic political system.

--excerpted from the U.S. Department of State 

Poland: Solidarność

When the Polish government enacted new food price increases in the summer of 1980, a wave of labor unrest swept the country. Partly moved by local grievances, the workers of the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk went on strike in mid-August. Led by Lech Walesa, the strikers occupied the shipyard and issued demands for labor reform and greater civil rights.

With heavy pressure coming from Moscow, in 1981 the government adopted a harder line against the union, and General Wojciech Jaruzelski, commander in chief of the Polish armed forces, replaced Stanislaw Kania as party leader in October. In December 1981, Jaruzelski declared martial law, and
ordered the apprehension of Solidarity's leaders, forbidding any further union activity. Nevertheless, Solidarity continued as an underground organization.

In 1988 a new wave of strikes and labor unrest spread across Poland, resulting in part from a 40% increase in food prices. The government finally accepted that it had to negotiate with Solidarity. On 6 February, 1989, Solidarity joined roundtable discussions with the government, the outcome of which was an agreement to hold free elections. Poland's first free elections delivered a landslide victory for Solidarity, which gained 99 of 100 seats in the senate and a majority in the lower house. In April 1990 at Solidarity's second national congress, Walesa was elected chairman with 77.5% of the votes. In December 1990 in a general ballot he was elected President of the Republic of Poland. He served until defeated in the election of November 1995.


Romania is a country located in Southeastern and Central Europe. It shares a border with Hungary and Serbia to the west, Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova to the northeast, and Bulgaria to the south. As a nation-state, the country was formed by the merging of Moldavia and Wallachia in 1859 and it gained recognition of its independence in 1878. At the end of World War II, parts of its territories were occupied by USSR and Romania became a member of the Warsaw Pact. With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, Romania started a series of political and economic reforms and joined the European Union in January 1, 2007.

Romanian—primary goal of this site is to sell travel guides, but lots of interesting information available online

Embassy of Romania—Washington, DC

Romanian Official Travel and Tourism Information

Human Rights

US Dept of State 2010 Human Rights Report

Amnesty International: Romanian Human Rights

Romania's Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Statement on Human Rights

Women’s Rights

Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights: Women's Status in Romania

1989 Links


The Gate of Heavenly Peace--website for the The documentary film The Gate of Heavenly Peace, based on the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

A Cry for Democracy Ends in Bloodshed
by Wang Dan 
From Time Asia issue VOL. 154 NO. 12, dated SEPTEMBER 27, 1999 
Wang Dan was a leader of the 1989 student movement in Tiananmen Square. 

The Virtual Museum of China 1989


BBC On this Day (November 24, 1989): New Era for Czechoslovakia

BBC News: Remembering the Velvet Revolution--Interview with student demonstrator Klara Pospisilova 10 years later.

East Germany

Berlin Wall Art: The Wall Before the Fall

Berlin Wall Project: A multi-medium performance space

A commemoration of the Fall of the Berlin Wall and a 2009 Schedule of Events for 20th Anniversary

Newseum: The Berlin Wall

"Tear Down This Wall": Transcript of Ronald Reagan's Speech at the Brandenburg Gate 
West Berlin, Germany June 12, 1987

The Fall of the Berlin Wall: Pictoral Essay


Nicolae Ceausescu's Last Public Speech - 21 dec 1989

Revolutia de la Timisoara - 22 dec 1989 (The Romanian Revolution) --Video

Romania: A Country Study
Ronald D. Bachman, ed., Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1989.