Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History. Lecture 24: The failure of Balkan Communism and the causes of the Revolutions of 1989

Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History

Lecture 24: The failure of Balkan Communism and the causes of the Revolutions of 1989


[This lecture was written in August 1995.  It is clear after the passage of time that some sections would be written differently today. However, I have elected to keep the original text here as written with only minor editing: interested readers should pursue newer information and interpretations in their libraries.]

The Revolutions of 1989 that ended Soviet-style Communism in the East European socialist states from the Baltic to the Balkans, were both dramatic and largely unexpected. It will be many years before a full documentary record is available, or the evidence that is required for a complete, reliable picture of what happened. However, one can discuss the causes of 1989, and explore some interpretations. This lecture discusses four explanations. Many of the key events in those explanations are interrelated, and it makes some sense to treat them as four stages in a lengthy process.

Briefly, these four explanations are:

  1. Collapse due to economic failure: The Revolutions of 1989 and the general unrest which preceded them during the 1980s have been interpreted as outgrowths of the economic failure of Communism. During the 1970s, the Eastern European Communist states pursued high-risk development strategies that relied on foreign loans to pay for construction of modernized economies. When oil prices rose in 1973 and 1979 and slowed the world economy, the Communist Bloc states could no longer make payments on their debts, and this led to a loss of credit and internal economic problems from which they never recovered.
  2. Collapse due to the arms race: The end of Soviet Communism has also been explained as a result of an economic crisis in which American military pressure and the costs of the arms race were the most important causes. Under Presidents Carter, Reagan and Bush the United States forced the Soviets to spend so much money on high-tech weapons that the Communist economy was bankrupted when too many resources had to be diverted away from productive investments and consumer needs.
  3. Collapse due to “perestroika” in the Soviet Union: Another explanation points to the Soviet Union and emphasizes the “perestroika” politics of Mikhail Gorbachev, without which revolutionary change in Eastern Europe would have remained impossible. Gorbachev did two things: he sanctioned an unprecedented degree of change in the Communist world and he made it clear that the Brezhnev Doctrine of 1968 was no longer in force. Once it was clear that the Soviet Union would no longer intervene in the affairs of its neighbors, Eastern Europeans were able to address their own local needs in their own way.
  4. Collapse due to the rise of alternatives to Communism: An approach that looks for explanations within Eastern Europe, rather than from the outside, argues that economic failure and the loss of Russian Communist pressure still do not explain the specific events and outcomes of the East European and Balkan Revolutions of 1989. The entrenched Communist leadership might have retained power on their own, except for the growth of alternatives to which the various nations could turn to redefine their societies. Because this view uncovers very different developments in the various states, therefore it also explains why the revolutions had such very different outcomes in various parts of the Bloc.  In Poland and Czechoslovakia, for example, alternatives included the so-called “civil society” movement and created local leaders like Poland’s Lech Walesa and Czechoslovakia’s Vaclav Havel, who stood up to authoritarian rule in the late ’70s and early ’80s to demand political pluralism and individual freedom. At the same time, states like the former Yugoslav republics followed a contrasting path in which the most successful alternatives involved nationalist figures who reintroduced familiar Balkan political themes.

The interaction of these explanations,and of critical events outside Eastern Europe, is apparent in following the development of Eastern European Communism in the two decades preceding 1989.

Step One: Economic failure

Eastern European Communism reached its political and economic high point in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Soviet Union had become a scientific and military superpower comparable to the United States. Thanks to limited economic reforms like the New Economic Mechanism in Hungary and acceptance of a semi-private “second economy,” the Communist states achieved striking economic growth. This economic success made it hard to dismiss claims that socialism was a valid alternative to capitalism, especially for developing nations.

Between 1965 and 1970, gross national product (GNP) per capita in the six Comecon states (East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria) grew annually by between 2.7 and 4.0 percent, compared to 2.5 percent for the United States. From 1970-75, GNP per capita rose in the same six states by 2.7 to 5.7 percent (an average of 4.2 percent), compared to a mere 1.2 percent in the U.S. and 1.3 percent in West Germany. In Bulgaria, Romania and Yugoslavia, GNP per capita doubled between 1960 and 1975, and new production began to include a higher proportion of consumer goods. GNP per capita was still only half of the American level, but the Communist states seemed to be catching up while offering universal health care, access to education, and full employment.

These growth figures were in some ways misleading. The Bloc countries began with such low levels of economic productivity that small increases translated into large percentage rates. Non-Communist Greece had rates of GNP growth for 1967-70 and 1970-75 that were even higher than those for the Comecon states (6.6 percent for Greece, 4.9 percent for the Bloc) and for the same reason.

Three traps were ahead for the East European economies.

First, growth on the cheap was about to end. Opportunities to build on previously untapped natural resources were exhausted: no more new hydroelectric dams in simple locations or mines exploiting high quality surface ores. The pool of underemployed rural labor — an asset when new factories opened — also had now been committed. The Soviet Union had subsidized growth in the region by offering economic aid, petroleum and natural gas supplies, and expertise at low costs; world events would soon force Moscow to curtail these resources or demand payment at market value. East Bloc labor had worked hard for minimal rewards, and by doing so, those workers had been subsidizing socialism: when workers began to demand more consumer goods and improved housing, overall costs rose within the system. After 1970 these old advantages vanished.

Second, economic reform introduced new expectations. When the Bloc regimes accepted limited levels of Western profit incentives (through reforms like the New Economic Mechanism), they fostered popular demands for better conditions. The Solidarity union movement in Poland was the unintended result of such a reform. When the Polish state stopped subsidizing low food prices in 1970, consumers experienced reduced access to goods: the resulting dissatisfaction caused the Gdansk shipyard strike, which in turn began a process that created an independent trade union movement ten years later.

Third, contact with Western economic forces exposed the Communist economies to the risks, as well as the benefits, of free enterprise and modern economic structures. Access to Western loans is an example. The Communist states lacked hard currency to invest in modern industries that could compete with the West in advanced technologies and consumer goods. To pay for imported Western machines and services, the East European states borrowed from Western banks. By 1980 Hungary owed $9 billion to Western lenders; Romania owed $10 billion. The new East Bloc industries planned to sell the output of the new industries on the world market, and so raise the cash to repay the loans. Two things undercut this plan.

First, too much loan money was spent unproductively, subsidizing short-term consumer needs, lost to corruption, or wasted on bad investments like the $2 billion Smederovo steel works in Serbia, a factory that never turned a profit.

Second, the Comecon states became economic hostages to Western business cycles. They were among the victims of the 1973 world oil price crisis when the OPEC states drove up the cost of energy from an index level of 80 in 1973, to 138 in 1975. The Iranian revolution of 1979 caused another increase in energy costs, to an index level of 238 in 1980 and 276 in 1982. Even after the crises ended, typical index levels remained remained around 125 or 130.

As a result, the debt-laden Bloc states could no longer stretch their financial resources far enough to buy energy to produce new goods, repay old loans, and meet domestic consumer demand at the same time. Without hard currency for debt repayment, vital Western investments would dry up: to pay back the loans, the Bloc states cut back on consumer goods and this created lines at stores, general misery and a loss of confidence in local economies and currencies (in the 1980s, cartons of Kent cigarettes had replaced currency as the preferred medium of exchange in Romania). Per capita GNP stopped rising in the 1980s; in Poland GNP figures actually began to go down.

Step Two: Cold War pressures

At the same time that the oil crises were straining Comecon finances by raising the price of energy, increased East-West tensions added burdensome military expenses.

When the period of “detente” ended in the late 1970s, the USSR and the US resumed a high-tech, high-cost strategic arms race. The Carter administration began work on neutron bombs and missile systems like the mobile MX and the cruise missile, which were deployed under Reagan in the 1980s. The USSR’s 1979 intervention in Afghanistan to preserve a communist regime led to a lengthy, costly war. In 1970, the military share of the Soviet GNP was estimated to be about 13 percent of total GNP. By 1988 this had grown to 16 percent. These military costs went up when the USSR could least afford it.

While the East European and Balkan socialist states were not directly affected by these costs, they soon faced reduced Soviet aid as an indirect result. The USSR began to demand market prices for its products, especially oil and gas. Thus the arms race compounded the effects of other economic problems in the Balkans. Economic hard times were not new in the Bloc, but in the 1980s they combined with new political phenomena to set the stage for 1989.

Step Three: Perestroika

The revolutionary events of 1989 differed widely from place to place. This suggests that the decisions of East European and Balkan leaders determined the nature of specific events during the transition from socialism. Aging leaders remained in control of the Communist states except in Yugoslavia, where Tito’s death in 1981 ushered in an awkward system of short-term presidents drawn in rotation from all the consitutent republics. While states like Hungary allowed experimentation in their economies in the ’80s, tolerance for change did not extend to political pluralism: the rationale for innovation remained pragmatic economic development.

The rise of Mikhail Gorbachev to power during this same period signaled that the Soviet Union was open not only to economic pragmatism, but a willingness to experiment in politics too. “Perestroika” (new thinking) in Russia began with economic reforms and a role for criticism under the concept of “glasnost” (openness). At the 1988 Party Congress speakers made real critiques of state policy. Combined with moves toward secret ballots and real elections, tolerance of such dissent implied a shift away from monolith Communist power in the state, and toward multi-party pluralism.

More important for the Balkan states, Gorbachev abandoned the Brezhnev Doctrine, the USSR’s commitment to use force to block any shift away from Russian-style Communism. Soviet occupation forces left Afghanistan and then Hungary. Speaking at the United Nations in December 1988, Gorbachev renounced the use of force in foreign policy. Clearly Russia was no longer going to block political experimentation in Eastern Europe. The transformation of Soviet foreign policy was a fundamental factor at work in the background of Balkan events: it was a major impetus for change that originated outside the Balkans.

Step Four: Alternatives to socialism

During the 1980s, oil prices and foreign debts discredited socialist economics and gave Eastern Europeans a pocketbook reason to seek radical change, while Gorbachev’s new policies removed potential Russian intervention as an obstacle. However, to understand the actual events that took place before and after the 1989 revolutions, we must look at domestic developments inside the Bloc states.

Just as trends in these states during the Cold War exhibited a strong degree of local variety, so did events at the end of the Cold War. There had been no uniform or “monolithic” Communism: neither was there any uniform shift to post-Communist societies and political systems. In some states, so-called “civil society” movements led toward Western-style pluralism; in others, authoritarian regimes (often tapping traditional nationalism) came to power. In some states, the revolution was bloodless; in others (like Romania) it led to civil strife, and in Yugoslavia, to extended open war. The presence (or absence) of specific alternative movements, ideologies and institutions correlates with the specific paths taken by the various Balkan states as the Communist era ended. In other words, while forces outside the region played a role, local influences and decisions were important too.

The varieties of Balkan experience

By looking back twenty (or more) years before the events of 1989, we can discern trends that illuminate what happened when change came. It is helpful also to look widely at events across all of Eastern Europe, because the steps that led to the 1989 revolutions show strong interconnections across the region.

We can see the roots of diversification in the Balkan and East European socialist experience as far back as the Tito-Stalin split, in Romania’s pursuit of a “national road to Communism,” and in the 1968 Prague Spring movement for “Communism with a human face” and its aftermath. While the 1968 Czech movement was suppressed, it produced echoes in other places that had profound consequences in years to come.

In Croatia, for example, demonstrations in 1968 by pro-Czech student sympathizers led to the creation of new student groups that functioned outside the control of the Party. Under their leadership, interest in Croatian history and culture revived. This reawakened ethnic pride soon combined with economic resentments that had an ethnic twist, as Croats watched money flow from Yugoslavia’s rich north to the poor south.

The result was a growing Croatian separatist movement, based in revival of a cultural organization from the nineteenth century, Matica Hrvatska (Matica means “queen bee”). In 1971, students sang banned patriotic songs in defiance of the authorities, while Matica Hrvatska proposed a new Croatian constitution under which Croatia would have the right to secede from Yugoslavia, and “Croatian” would become the state language instead of Serbo-Croatian. At the same time, Catholics criticised the Serbian Orthodox Church and there was an effort to end the right of Serbs in Croatia to education in Cyrillic. In the ensuing crackdown, numerous leaders were arrested. One of them was Franjo Tudjman, the future President of Croatia.  In 1971 he was 49 years old, a former partisan and Communist general with academic interests, who had resigned his state posts in 1967 to take up the cause of Croatian nationalism.

The period of East-West detente in the middle 1970s injected additional factors. The 1975 Helsinki Agreements between the USSR and the United States included a pledge by the Soviets to permit the exercise of “human rights.” While the concept was vaguely defined, the agreement nevertheless offered important leverage for reformers.

When members of an irreverent rock band called the “Plastic People of the Universe” were arrested in Czechoslovakia in 1977, 243 Czech writers, intellectuals and reform-minded Communists organized an informal group called “Charter 77” to protest the arrests. Charter 77 issued a public letter calling on dissidents to live “as if” they were living in a “civil society,” one in which basic human rights such as freedom of expression were allowed. Their most important leader was the playwright Vaclav Havel, later the first President of the post-Communist Czech Republic. Under Stalin (or Romania’s Ceausescu), these kinds of dissenters probably would have been shot, but increased Bloc reliance on Western good will meant that the protesters simply were harassed, while their message of disobedience persisted, laying the framework for an alternative system.

In Poland, the impetus for an alternative society came from other directions. The 1978 election of the Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as Pope John Paul II fostered Polish activism that included a rediscovered awareness of Polish Catholicism (in which nationalism was not far from the surface). In 1980, another economic downturn led to more strikes in Polish shipyards and the emergence of Lech Walesa and Solidarnosc (Solidarity), the Bloc’s first independent trade union, that is, one outside Communist Party control. Solidarity offered an alternative model for labor in a “workers’ state” despite being suppressed in 1981 by the martial law regime of Prime Minister (and former General) Wojciech Jaruzelski. Ironically, even Jaruzelski can be viewed as a figure opposed to external Soviet Russian influence. The prevention of an armed Russian intervention was one of the key factors behind the imposition of martial law, as much as opposition to reform currents from within the Polish socialist state.

Alternatives in Hungary

Events in Prague and Gdansk foreshadowed the course of the eventual revolutions and issues defining the post-Communist societies in Czechoslovakia and Poland. So did events in the Balkans. In retrospect, it is possible to find hints in the 1980s which point to emerging forces, forces that took center stage after Soviet control was removed.

In Hungary, the “alternative” to Communism largely sprang from inside the Party itself: for that reason the “Revolution” of 1989 was more of an “Evolution.” Hungarian Communism in the 1980s tolerated strong elements of economic reform, and a good deal of decision making took place at the lower levels of the economy even if prohibitions on political democracy remained in place. The private “second economy” was legalized in 1982. Such conditions encouraged critics of the system.

Until the middle 1980s the Hungarian opposition remained small and was principally a matter for intellectuals. After 1985, however, other groups capitalized on new rights to freedom of expression won by this vanguard, and for the first time since the 1940s created mass movements outside the Party. For example, environmentalists opposed Czechoslovak projects for new dams on the Danube, and demonstrators promoted aid to the persecuted Hungarian minority under Romanian rule in Transylvania. Neither group could be accused of anti-Communist views; both tapped into nationalist feelings as well.

In 1988, the senile Janos Kadar was removed from power by younger elements in the Party. By then, both pro-reform Communists and the new movements were comfortable with a situation in which certain organizations functioned outside Party control. After Gorbachev withdrew the threat of Soviet intervention, which had been a prop for traditionalists in the Party, the reform faction was able to gain control. Party reformers were willing to accept political as well as economic and organizational pluralism. In the spring of 1989, the Hungarian reformers declared the March anniversary of the 1848 revolution as a holiday, and scheduled free elections for 1990.  Unwilling any longer to enforce a closed frontier, they opened the border to permit Hungarians to visit Austria freely for the first time in a generation. The results were spectacular.

The events of 1989

Hungary’s decision to open its borders set off a chain reaction that involved all the East European socialist states. In August 1989, a stream of East Germans began to appear at the West German embassy in Budapest, seeking asylum and permission to move to West Germany. When the growing throng overflowed the embassy grounds, the Hungarians simply opened the border and thousands of East Germans streamed into Austria. A similar cycle of events began at the West German embassy in Prague. The excitement was catching. Czechoslovakia and East Germany (whose Communist regimes remained traditional and authoritarian) now experienced massive street demonstrations, which went unchecked after police refused government orders to fire on the crowds.

By November 1989, a new East German reform cabinet entertained secret discussions about relaxation of the rules against emigration: as a result, a rumor swept East Berlin that the Berlin Wall was being opened. Crowds filled the streets and demoralized border guards simply let citizens cross into West Berlin. After that, the East German regime unravelled in a few days. In Czechoslovakia, a week of mass demonstrations ended the Communist monopoly on power when Czech party reformers refused to use force to regain control. Vaclav Havel began the year in jail; by December he was the new President of Czechoslovakia.

Hungary, Czechoslovakia and East Germany experienced rapid, non-violent revolutions in which an orientation to the West and the preexistence of progressive “alternative” structures played key roles. Events in the Balkan states stand in stark contrast. The “revolutions” there were slower to begin, slower to unfold and slower to lead to dramatic changes: in fact, to the extent that former Communists retained an uninterrupted grip on state power, one might question whether “revolutions” even took place.  Furthermore, events in the Balkans involved substantially greater levels of violence, iuncluding the resurrection of inter-ethnic strife, so that it was unclear whether the collapse of Communism looked forward to new 21st century visions, or backward to the traditions of the 19th century.


Bulgaria experienced a rather quiet “revolution” in 1989. It is perhaps easier to say that the Party, like it’s leader Todor Zhivkov, simply grew old and exhausted. As hasd been true in Hungary, the limited instances of opposition to the Party in the 1980s revolved around issues that were relatively harmless from a political perspective. One center of dissent was an environmental movement, which focussed on air pollution from badly run factories in neighboring Romania. Another was made up of Bulgarian intellectuals who were opposed to anti-Turkish measures. Neither movement implied fundamental criticism of the Bulgarian socialist regime.

In 1984, for reasons that are still obscure, the state decided to Bulgaricize the country’s 10 percent Turkish minority, which lived quietly and productively in traditional rural districts. For the first time, Islamic religious observances were harassed and Moslem families were forced to change their names to “Bulgarian” sounding names. Perhaps a hundred people were killed in small-scale riots. Dissent remained private until 1989 when Turkish leaders organized protests. The state responded by expelling 300,000 Turks from the country, a move that disrupted the economy and attracted criticism from Bulgarian intellectuals.

However, the more important forces for change came from within the party. Reformers publicized corruption among Todor Zhivkov’s entourage in part to put pressure on the Party to embrace needed economic reforms. Zhivkov resigned in November 1989 at the age of 78, and in December the Party gave up its monopoly on power. Like their Hungarian counterparts, reformers in the Bulgarian party overcame fears about pluralism and in fact the renamed Bulgarian Socialist Party won the free 1990 elections. In other words, the result of the 1989 “revolution” was to return reform-minded ex-Communists to power, which casts some doubt on the use of the word “revolution” in this case.


In Romania too, Party insiders were important figures in offering “alternatives” to the existing, traditional Communist regime. Unlike Hungary and Bulgaria, however, their influence was far less progressive, largely because Ceausescu’s brand of Stalinism had suppressed imaginative thinking for so long, along with real dissent. Romania tolerated no movements like Charter 77 or Solidarity: the leaders of even minor strikes routinely disappeared.

Ceausescu’s brother Nicu has called the events of December 1989 in Romania “a coup d’etat that took place against the background of a popular revolt.”  If levels of violence are any gauge, the revolution tapped deep wellsprings of discontent. The entire population had suffered under miserable conditions all through the 1980s, denied basic consumer goods while the foreign debt was repaid.  

At the same time, ethnic Hungarians in Transylvania were singled out for second-class treatment. It was no coincidence that when the crisis broke in December 1989, it began with state efforts to arrest a Magyar priest in Transylvania. In that episode, several people were killed by the Securitate secret police, but inaccurate rumors abut the massacre of thousands led to a nation-wide wave of unrest. Ceausescu’s efforts to overawe his critics backfired when he was booed at a mass rally in Bucharest. Fighting then broke out between street crowds and the Securitate, in which some 5,000 people were killed and parts of the city destroyed.

However, the absence of organized, well-known or credible alternative forces in Romanian society left this popular revolution without leaders or a clear ideological direction. Instead, rivals of Ceausescu within the Party itself appear to have used these genuine demonstrations as a cover, under which they carried out long-standing plans for a coup. Army and Party leaders jealous or afraid of the Ceausescu clan took advantage of the disorder to arrest, execute and belatedly try Ceausescu and his wife. Analysts have pointed to the rapid appearance of the National Salvation Front (NSF or FSN) as a sign of conspiracy: a previously unknown political organization, it rapidly took over the government.

Subsequent to 1989, the NSF proved to be a political tool of longtime Communist leaders including Securitate figures, and not an expression of real dissent or opposition. While some alternative political groups and media have appeared, [up to 1995] the NSF has dominated power as a new political monopoly. Ion Iliescu, a former Communist, secured 85% of the vote for president in 1990. When student demonstrators challenged NSF policies, the state brought 10,000 miners armed with clubs to Bucharest from the provinces, then used them to break up opposition gatherings and smash the offices of rival parties. Romanian politics in the period after 1989 showed few signs of real pluralism or reforms that might break up old corrupt centers of power.


Events in Yugoslavia displayed the resurgence of nationalism at their most extreme. Lecture 25 deals with events there. Suffice it to say for now that the alternative centers of social and political organization there were based strongly in traditional nationalism, and this accounted for the ethnic warfare that lasted four years. The aftershocks of the Prague spring fell on fertile ground laced with mistrust when it came to Serbs and Croats.


If we analyze the Eastern European revolutions of 1989 through the presence or absence of local alternatives to Communism, Albania presents an extreme case. Because Albania had the fewest alternatives to the Party structure, Albania experienced the least apparent changes in 1989. Instead, change began with the death of Enver Hoxha in 1985, the World War II guerilla leader who led the Party and the state all through the Cold War.

By the time Hoxha died at age 77, Albanian Communism was exhausted. Forty years of Stalinist domestic policies (periodic purges, repression of dissent and criticism, central economic planning and collectivization) had produced Europe’s lowest standard of living, combined with a sterile culture offering no alternative ideas. Even Albania’s celebrated independence in foreign affairs reached a dead end, when Hoxha broke with Communist Chinese modernizers after Mao’s death in 1976. The country was self-sufficient but isolated.

Hoxha’s successor was Ramiz Alia, a Communist since age 18, who rose rapidly in the Party-state apparatus. Despite his loyalty to Hoxha, Alia recognized in 1985 that the country needed international aid and economic reforms. Between 1985 and 1989 he introduced wage incentives, plant autonomy, consumer goods and toleration of criticism by the nation’s writers, while the Party retained a monopoly on political power.

Alia experienced no serious challenge during the Revolutions of 1989. The Party accelerated plans for economic reforms, but made no move toward political pluralism until December 1990, more than a year after events elsewhere. In apparently free elections in 1991, the Communist Party took 56 percent of the vote, and Alia was elected President. In other words, there were so few alternatives in Albania that the party and its leading personalities still dominated the landscape. If there is to be “revolution” in Albania, its crucial aspects are a matter of economic modernization, not politics.


We can make two summary observations, comparing Balkan events with those to the north, and even to those in Hungary.

First, only in the Balkans did former Communists retain a grip on political power in the period immediately after the revolution. Elements rooted in Solidarity and the Catholic Church routed the Polish Communists. Charter 77 created an alternative in Czechoslovakia. East Germany looked to Bonn, and former Party leaders were tried for treason. But in the Balkan states, ex-Communists remain major players in national politics, even if many chose to redefine themselves as nationalists.

Second, extensive violence during the 1989 revolutions was confined to two Balkan states: Romania and Yugoslavia. The northern revolutions involved peaceful demonstrators, who established pluralist regimes. In the Balkans, tolerance and pluralism remained in short supply. This led to violent responses to dissent and to ethnic conflict. Both seem more like echoes of the Balkan past, than signs of progress toward a brighter future.


This lecture is a portion of a larger set of texts, Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). 

This page created on 27 November 1996; last modified 17 January 2023.

Copyright 1996 by Steven W. Sowards

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