Spirit of '89 Revolutions Rumbles in the Balkans
From Sofia to Belgrade, cry of freedom rings
On the steps of the gold-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a drably dressed pensioner is dancing the fox trot with a university student as "Rock Around the Clock" blares from amplifiers. Before them a crowd of 50,000 bounces and hops to the music, waving Bulgarian flags and banners denouncing the government.Skip to next paragraph
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"Who would have thought this could happen here?" says the student, stopping to catch her breath in the twilight chill. "It's our turn to have a Velvet Revolution," she says, referring to the popular demonstrations that brought down Czechoslovakia's Communist regime in 1989.
In scenes reminiscent of Eastern Europe's 1989 revolutions, people across the Balkans have taken to the streets to demand democratic change. Led by the young, mass protests are challenging leaderships in Serbia, Bulgaria, and Croatia. And Romanians voted former Communists out of power in November.
Reasons for the rumblings vary, but as in 1989, events in one nation spark defiance in others.
In the end, this winter may bring a sea change to the Balkans as important as the 1989 wave in East-Central Europe. After decades of dictatorship - and seven years of austerity, official corruption, and authoritarianism under post-Communist regimes - people are demanding change.
The Balkans - made up of the former Yugoslavia, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece - is a region largely defined by centuries of Ottoman rule, which ended only on the eve of World War I.
Since then, the region has become a byword for instability and conflict - from the wars of independence early in the century to the recent wars in Croatia and Bosnia. World War I started here with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, and Great Power rivalries have been waged here ever since.
"We have far less historical experience with democracy and the free-market system than the Czechs, Hungarians, or Poles," says Bulgarian Mikolay Petrov of the Sofia-based financial weekly 168 Chasa.
"Because of history, geography, and geopolitics, we needed much more help in this transition period, but received far less than East-Central Europe did."
When Soviet communism collapsed in the face of popular demonstrations, it was replaced by relatively democratic, Europe-leaning governments in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. But Communist apparatchiks retained power in Romania, Bulgaria, and the Yugoslav republic of Serbia, and used their offices to enrich themselves and quash dissent through their control of police, media, and the state administration.
Along with Franjo Tudjman's nationalist government in Croatia, much of the region has until recently remained under what is effectively one-party rule.
Demonstrators and voters have been motivated by different factors in each country. But they share certain elements: a dissatisfaction with their deteriorating economic situation, a desire for more integration with Europe, and widespread disgust with government corruption and nepotism.
"These events represent a dramatic geopolitical change," says an East European diplomat. "Since 1989, these countries have been considered a cordon sanitare between Russia and the West. Now it appears these countries may also be moving towards real European integration."