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The Warsaw Voice » Other » September 30, 2009
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Winds of Change
September 30, 2009   
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The face of Europe altered in the late 1980s in the biggest geopolitical upheaval since the end of World War II . The collapse of the Soviet Union and of its rule over its satellite states gave an impetus to European integration.

Starting from the early 1950s, Central and Eastern Europe had been repeatedly shaken by attempts to shake off Soviet domination or at least relax the communist grip on the region. The bloodiest incident was the Hungarian uprising of 1956 that was brutally suppressed by Soviet troops. Warsaw Pact forces intervened again in 1968 in Czechoslovakia to suppress the Prague Spring, a peaceful attempt to bring a measure of democracy to that country.

The largest number of movements demanding greater freedoms occurred in Poland. These included the June 1956 protests of workers in Poznań; the events of March 1968 when Warsaw intellectuals protested against a government-backed campaign against Jews; the violent suppression of worker protests in Gdańsk and the rest of the Tricity area in December 1970; worker protests in Radom in June 1976; and finally the events of August 1980 when workers in the north revolted again, hammering out a short-lived agreement with the communist authorities and bringing about the legalization of the Solidarity trade union.

But the winds of democracy did not blow for long; they ended abruptly when communist leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law Dec. 13, 1981. Over the next several years, the democratic opposition worked underground. Still, it gradually became clear that Poland was the first country in the region where communism could begin to fall.

The breakthrough of 1989 in Poland triggered a domino effect across the region. In the summer of 1989, the authorities and democratic opposition in Hungary started talks that led to the adoption of a new constitution and, as a consequence, the communists lost their monopoly on power in that country.

In the meantime, from the spring of 1989, thousands of East German citizens had been fleeing every day to West Germany via Czechoslovakia, to Austria via Hungary and even to Warsaw, where they received help from the West German embassy, the Citizens' Parliamentary Party (OKP), the government of Tadeusz Mazowiecki and the Catholic Church. In an effort to prevent a humanitarian disaster, the refugees were accommodated in over 80 vacation centers around Warsaw. After difficult negotiations between the Polish government and officials in Berlin, the authorities in East Germany permitted East German citizens to leave Poland on two "Freedom Trains" (Oct. 1 and Oct. 5, 1989) from Warsaw to West Germany via East Germany. More refugees left Poland by plane and on ferries to Sweden. Border crossings along the Berlin Wall were opened Nov. 9 and soon after the wall, which had been dividing Europe for decades, ceased to exist.

On Dec. 7, the government in Bulgaria started negotiations with the opposition, while Czechoslovakia formed a government independent of Moscow following the Velvet Revolution. Romania, in turn, overthrew the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. Some time later, at the "2+4" conference on Jan. 12, 1990, the four countries between which the occupation zones in Germany had been divided after World War II, agreed to put an end to the division of Germany. Germany was reunified Oct. 3, 1990.

The Soviet Union broke up in 1991 and transformed into the Commonwealth of Independent States which soon began to aspire to full independence. The first to break free from the Soviet empire was Lithuania, soon followed by Latvia and Estonia and then other former Soviet republics.

The Soviet Union was replaced by 15 sovereign countries, most of which went on to take a pro-Western political and economic course.

The Autumn of Nations led to the demise of the Warsaw Pact, while all Soviet Army units were withdrawn from the former Soviet satellite states. The retreating Soviet Army also disassembled launching pads for nuclear missiles installed in those countries.

The Autumn of Nations overthrew a totalitarian system and restored freedom of speech and democracy to former communist bloc countries. Most of the countries taking part in the Autumn of Nations have since joined NATO and the EU, while others are in membership negotiations.
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