As the once so secure Arab regimes appeared to be falling like dominoes in the face of popular demands for regime change (read: freedom and democracy), the abundant commentary in the Western media often used analogous revolutionary moments in time to outline the importance of events, or offer guidance to US and European leaders on ways to resolve their foreign policy conundrum (how to support democracy and human rights without threatening the stability needed for security and economic growth). From the fall of apartheid to the violent suppression of student protests at Tiananmen Square and the ousting of South-American generals, most recent ‘liberation events’ have featured in numerous articles but none more so than the 1989 fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe.
At first glance, the analogy seems apt. Then and now we see populations rising up against autocratic regimes propped up by vast security forces and the financial, military and political tutelage of a superpower. At closer inspection however, the differences are significant enough to suggest that the smooth trajectory from Warsaw Pact to Lisbon Treaty will not be afforded to the current batch of freedom seeking populations. Three main differences stand out.
One, these days there is no Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost and Perestroika were not so much informed by popular demands for reform but rather proved to be the loosening of reigns necessary for people to believe that change was possible and that the risks involved in protesting and demanding change were manageable. Of course, for Gorbachev, demokratizatsiya did not necessarily mean free elections and a multi-party system but once change was happening, Mikhail did not stand in its way. In fact, in no uncertain terms did he make it clear to the leaders of Central and East European countries that violence against their own populations would not (or no longer) be accepted.