Introductory Essay

Origins of Change in Eastern Europe

In 1980, the world seemed a cold and forbidding place. For two generations, the Cold War overshadowed national and international politics as the United States and the Soviet Union competed for global leadership. The twentieth century divided Europe between states that had Communist governments and those that did not. As Winston Churchill famously declared in 1946, this divide created an “iron curtain” across Europe from Stettin on the Baltic Sea to Trieste on the Adriatic. By the 1980s, this “cold” war had seen several “hot” conflicts in Afghanistan, Angola, and Iraq. Large nuclear arsenals in the United States and the Soviet Union targeted each other and analysts spoke of “mutually assured destruction” as the certain outcome of any nuclear exchange between the two superpowers. Meanwhile, leaders in both Eastern and Western Europe attempted to maintain the new cultural and economic ties they had created during the era détente of the 1970s, while they watched the two superpowers renew their Cold War hostilities.

Four factors played a significant role in the events leading up to the end of the Cold War. Three of these factors are best described as structural; they were the result of problems internal to the Communist economic and political systems or were the result of external diplomatic and military pressures. The fourth factor proved the most telling in the final demise of the regimes. This was popular pressure from citizens who took to the streets by the thousands to demand an end to the dominance of their lives by the Communist parties in their respective countries.

When Mikhail Gorbachev became General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union in 1985, trouble began brewing for the Communist parties of Eastern Europe. Believing that economic change could revitalize the Soviet system, Gorbachev introduced social and economic reforms in the Soviet Union that provided for more political freedom (glasnost – literally “openness”) and a restructuring of the economy (perestroika). As these changes began to take hold in the Soviet Union, Communist leaders in Eastern Europe were forced to consider similar reforms in their own countries (or tried to shut them out completely, as was the case in East Germany).

While publicly expressing support for his fellow Comunist governments in Eastern Europe, Gorbachev also made clear his belief that Communist governments everywhere needed to pursue a similar path of change. Perhaps even more important, he made it clear that the Soviet Union would no longer intervene militarily in Eastern Europe to prevent reform movements as it had done in East Germany in 1953, in Hungary in 1956, and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. For the East European Communist leaders, Gorbachev’s disavowal of the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine (in which former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev vowed to use military force to prevent Communist states from turning away from Communism) meant that they could no longer count on his support to stop those in their countries who had begun to press for change.

In addition to this pressure from Moscow to initiate reforms, the East European Communist regimes faced a renewed challenge from the West, particularly from the United States and its NATO allies. Beginning in 1981, the U.S. President Ronald Reagan embarked on a significant upgrade of American military capacity. The Soviets and their allies then had to decide whether or not to increase spending on their conventional military forces to keep pace. Ultimately, the Soviets and the East European regimes did increase their military spending at a time when their economies could not sustain the cost. Reagan also used the media to challenge the Soviets and the East Europeans to democratize, most famously on June 12, 1987. On that day, he stood in front of the Berlin Wall and demanded: “General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” (Download the text of President Reagan's speech.)

A third significant challenge to the East European regimes came from the growing economic crisis in the region that inspired many government officials and ordinary citizens—who felt the consequences of the economic problems most acutely—to seek out ways to foster change. Excessive foreign borrowing had resulted in external debts that could not be paid without substantial increases in state revenue. Centrally planned economies—where all important economic decisions were made by state bureaucrats and where almost all economic assets were state-owned—were often inefficient. The only way that Communist regimes could raise the revenue they needed to pay their external debts was to increase prices for essentials—food, shelter, and energy. Faced with rising prices and stagnant wages in an economy controlled by the government, citizens increasingly turned their ire on the government—first in private and later in public. Because they knew that the Soviet Union was experimenting with economic reform, many citizens in East European countries became very frustrated with their own leaders who seemed to resist similar reforms.

Desire for economic reform did not mean the vast majority of people in these countries wanted a capitalist economic system as promoted by the West. The evidence points instead to strong sympathy for a mixed economic system that ensured the benefits of a social welfare model while allowing market mechanisms to function in some sectors of the economy, such as wages and consumer goods.