Eastern Europe 1988/1989


Poland can look back on a long history as an independent and powerful state until its partition in 1795. While it regained independence after World War I, it was soon thereafter occupied again by the German and later by the Soviet army. After World War II the USSR not only incorporated the country by awarding the Polish population the former German territories east of the Oder–Neisse line, but also helped a communist government to rise to power in order to keep Poland in its sphere of influence. This met armed resistance, and it is only in 1952 that the Peoples Republic of Poland was finally proclaimed and established by force. The economy had strongly suffered during World War II. The West did not extend huge credits at the beginning of the 1970s, and the standard of living of the population dropped. The political and economic stagnation led to spontaneous riots against the increase of prices of food and consumer goods, which were radically put down by the military.  

This led to the fact that the state was understood only as an organizational ‘vessel’ by the oppositional political elite in Poland, who did not strive for participation in these official structures anymore but instead directed their energy to autonomous social spaces and the self-organised independent political sphere. Manifold oppositional structures formed into a well-connected civil society overarching the intellectual elite and the workers’ movements. In 1981 the independent trade Union Solidarnosc was formed in Gdansk and gained 10 million members (from a total Polish population of about 37 million inhabitants) within a month until its prohibition in 1981. Progressive fractions within the Communist party and the Christian-Democratic Union Solidarnosc dominated the public discourse. 

With a legal Catholic Press, Poland was the only Communist country in Eastern Europa which had a press independent from the centralized command system. Generally, Polish citizens had access to a very large variety of alternative mass media, from samizdat journals over Exile press, to foreign channels which were broadcasted in Polish, such as Deutsche Welle from Germany. During the 1980s the controlled official mass media also took the chance of liberalization to report to a certain degree more freely, and opened up for public debate. Public intellectuals played an important role in this transition process. In the round table negotiations in 1989, the journalists Adam Michnik, Krzyztof Koslowski and Tadeusz Masowiecki took part as leading figures of the opposition, which helped make mass media freedom one of the core issues in the negotiation process. 

Poland was selected as country of investigation for the MFT project because of the very well developed, alternative political structures which were able to facilitate the oppositional claims of protest, leading to the round table talks among the delegates of the Polish Workers Party and the Opposition on a level playing field. Also important for the selection of Poland for the country sample is the central role of religious bodies among these organizations. Both characteristics are also present in Egypt. 



In the 19th Century Hungary developed quickly within the Habsburg Empire as a comparatively multi-ethnic state. In World War I it lost a significant share of its territory (Treaty of Trianon). Today, the collective trauma of Trianon is still present. In the remaining territory the population was strongly decimated during both Wars. At the end of World War II Hungary was occupied by the Soviet troops and incorporated with the Treaty of Jalta into the alliance set up by the Warsaw Pact.

After a Stalinist beginning, communist Hungary developed a quite liberal political system and a planned economy with market based elements, leading to comparatively high standards of living for the population for some time. The liberalization of the market was fueled by the economic crisis in the 1980s and the high foreign debts which could not be serviced despite the loans from the IMF and the World Bank. Due to this economic instability the political system opened up for reforms. Different fractions formed within the Communist party, leading to the replacement of conservative communists with reform-oriented members. In contrast to the Polish transition, main reforms were initiated by the Communist party itself. From 1987 onwards, alternative political parties also developed.  

In Kadar’s Hungary, censorship was less strictly applied to the official media as well as exile publications, and foreign media was easier to access and redistribute than in other socialist countries. An alternative press was tolerated to a certain extent, which facilitated the oppositional public discourse. 

Hungary was selected for the MFT project because of the tremendous mass-media impact on the events of the late 1980s in the Communist Eastern bloc which had its origins in Hungary. To name just one example, the news of the symbolic cutting of the iron curtain by the Foreign Ministers of Austria and Hungary on June 27, 1989 in Sopron spread across the world. Concerning the enforcement of political reforms, Hungary did not take the lead role in the wave of transition in the Warsaw Pact States but aligned with Poland and its Round table negotiations. Nevertheless, due to its less controlled public sphere, Hungary took the lead in distributing the political discourse. 



Romania, as a late descendant state from the Ottoman Empire (1878), experienced a time of economic progress and comparative political stability until World War I. During the interwar period Romania first flourished after the implementation of a new constitution and agricultural reforms, but in the 1930s experienced social unrest because of unemployment and political instability. After World War II the Communist party, which was established during the Soviet Occupation, fraudulently won the election and established the People’s Republic of Romania. Romania was the economic laggard among the Warsaw Pact States, even if the communist rule had brought some evident progress in form of forced industrialization and centralization. This did not save the economy from stagnation and rising foreign debt due to loans from the Western countries as well as the international organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank. The government tried to lower external debt with harsh economic adjustment packages. In the 1980s most of the food and fuel production was exported. The standard of living dropped dramatically and the population suffered not only from a lack of durable consumer goods but also from a shortage of basic commodities. 

When Nicolae Ceausescu entered the government, he established himself as totalitarian leader and strictly followed his Stalinist program until the end of Communism in Romania. There was not much room for political opposition or a dissenting public sphere. The trade union movement, a substantial attempt of alternative groups in Romanian society to form alternative political structures, was crushed in the late 1970s by the Securitate. Due to this, the political unrest in 1989 was not channeled through existing political structures.  

The state was most hierarchically organized and accordingly, mass media was also strongly centralized and directly and strictly controlled. As a consequence, people avoided national mass media consumption. Apart from the Hungarian and Yugoslavian media, which were very popular among the ethnic minorities, foreign mass media were generally difficult to access. Among the accessible media, Radio Free Europe (RFE) can be regarded as the most central for transition in Romania.  Ceausescu followed his Neo-Stalinist program until the abrupt end, which was symbolically and drastically amplified by the broadcasted trial and subsequent execution of the totalitarian leader.

Romania was selected because of the cult of personality the General Secretary Nicolae Ceausescu introduced and fostered during his long tenure in the government. These structures will be compared to those in Qadhafi’s Libya due to Qadhafi’s comparable style of governing.