Year of Giant Victories - And Some Bitter Defeats

DEMOCRACY'S attempts to spread its roots into unfamiliar socialist territory headed the world's news in 1989, meeting with astonishing success in the East bloc - and bitter disappointment in China. So stunning were these drives for freedom, both in victory and defeat, that those following the news felt they were watching political shifts of rare magnitude. They easily led a list of the 10 major events of 1989, as ranked by this newspaper's news staff.

Elsewhere, freedom advanced by inches in South Africa, where anti-apartheid activists were released from prison. And the established democracies had their challenges. George Bush, first among equals in the leadership of the West, was sworn in as the president of the United States, only to find the world stage dominated by his superpower counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev. Bush's foreign policy seemed to lag a half beat behind world events until last week, when he authorized an armed intervention against Panama's Manuel Noriega.

The Iron Lady image of Britain's Margaret Thatcher began to show signs of rust; she found herself odd woman out on European Community matters and faced opposition within her own party. But West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's stolid presence came to look like strength as he held a steady open hand toward East Germans streaming into his half of divided Germany.

Industry had its tragedies: Due to human error, the tanker Exxon Valdez engulfed the Alaska coast with oil. Turning the tables, the environment tested human preparedness with Hurricane Hugo and the Santa Cruz, Calif., earthquake.

Science and technology found triumphs in the Voyager 2 space mission.

In the US, the Republicans lost soundly in the first state and local elections of the Bush era.

The year ended with the Bush administration enmeshed in the complicated web of drugs and relations with Latin America. Ironically, things were going better for American foreign policy far away than close at hand. At the American border, and within the US sphere of influence in Central America, minor political figures like Panamanian strongman Noriega and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega were defiant until the giant to the north finally responded.

Other forces were at work in 1989 that had significant, if less dramatic, effect.

A wave of economic restructuring worked through the Western economies. In the US, corporations continued to empty their middle-management ranks. Securities firms, book publishers, automakers, computer companies slashed staffs. This restructuring was part of the American competitive answer to Japanese and West German trade advantages. Real estate markets in areas around cities like Boston began to sag.

Meanwhile, abroad, the European Community anticipated closer union in 1992: Lawyers and consultants converged on the big cities to establish beachheads for economic bonanza. Real estate inflation began to engulf Europe '92 cities like Brussels.

Time horizons shrank in 1989. The question of German unity, which most had assumed would not be faced in this century, was posed by the East German people themselves. Even in the southern reaches of the Western Hemisphere, the democratic movement advanced, with free elections completing the stepping aside of strongman Pinochet in Chile.

The 1980s closed on an emotional high for the forces of change and adjustment. The setback in China's Tiananmen Square could not alter the feeling that the pressures for economic reform, less central planning, and greater individual enterprise and expression inevitably favored Western-style democracy.

This is how the Monitor saw the top 10 stories of 1989 at year's end:

The Upheaval in Eastern Europe

Revolutionary changes struck Eastern Europe in 1989, as a result of popular unrest and Mikhail Gorbachev's laissez-faire policy toward the Soviet Union's former client states. East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Bulgaria are promising free elections next year and new political parties are sprouting to compete with the greatly weakened Communists. Economic difficulties are pushing new governments to seek help from the West and attempt reforms that would tie them closer to the Western system.

In Poland, the majority in the government is non-Communist, including a member of the Solidarity trade union as prime minister. Legislation would transform Poland into a market economy.

In East Germany, hard-line Communist leader Erich Honecker and several members of his government were ousted in favor of reformers in the party and government. The Berlin Wall was opened after thousands of East Germans had already fled to the West.

In Czechoslovakia, reformers also took over the reins from hard-liners. The party lost its leading role. In Hungary, the Communist Party renounced Marxism and embraced democratic socialism, changing its name to the Socialist Party. The country's fence on its western border has been removed. In Bulgaria, hard-line leader Todor Zhivkov was replaced.

In Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu, the last of East Europe's hard-line Communists, was overthrown and replaced by a ``National Salvation Front.'' Police firing at street demonstrators in Timisoara apparently ignited the nationwide revolt.

China's Aborted Reforms

Deng Xiaoping had led his nation through a decade of dramatic economic reform that had brought both rapid annual growth and heightened inflation. China's octogenarian senior leader faced criticism from conservatives.

The situation grew tense this spring as tens of thousands of students peacefully demonstrated for democracy in Tiananmen Square. Few television-news viewers will ever forget the image of the lone Chinese man single-handedly stopping a column of Chinese tanks en route to the world's largest public square. On June 3-4 Mr. Deng's Red Army massacred hundreds of optimistic, youthful Chinese in Beijing. The blood bath brought about retrenchment in economic liberalization. It has harmed China's relations with other nations and stalled projects relying on increased international aid.

The Alaskan Oil Spill

Just after midnight on March 24, the 978-foot tanker Exxon Valdez, loaded with 1.26 million barrels of oil, slammed into a reef 25 miles southwest of Valdez, Alaska, causing the worst oil spill in US history. For 14 hours before emergency crews arrived, oil gushed from the ship's hull. Exxon spent more than $1 billion and hired 10,000 workers trying to clean 1,100 miles of beaches. At least 146 eagles, 33,000 sea birds, and 980 sea otters were killed. A salmon harvest was ruined.

Since the spill, the US petroleum industry has set up several oil spill equipment centers. Congress passed new liability requirements and precautions against spills, and set up a fund for cleanups. Environmental groups have stepped up opposition to oil development in Alaska.

Reform in South Africa

South Africa's President Frederik W. de Klerk is a top contender for 1989's ``strongman reformer'' title. Like Soviet leader Gorbachev, Mr. de Klerk fought against an entrenched, conservative bureaucracy. In South Africa, as in the USSR, the leadership responded positively to grass-roots protests. Under the pressure of the prospect of increased sanctions coming out of the Commonwealth nations' meeting in early '89, de Klerk released key activist leaders, many of whom had lived 25 years in prison.

Former President Pieter Botha broke ground by meeting with African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela in July. De Klerk followed suit last week, continuing his conciliatory tone.

Local authorities in South Africa have been allowed considerable freedom to water down strict apartheid laws.

This year, the government allowed the ANC (though still banned) to function much more as a legitimate institution, letting it hold full-scale rallies and marches. Anti-apartheid activist leaders are developing public, national reputations. As they gain national standing, negotiations on South Africa's future are more likely to occur and be productive.

Gorbachev's Initiatives

The Soviet Union made startling changes in foreign affairs, ending a costly invasion and normalizing relations with China, its Asian neighbor of more than 1 billion people. Gorbachev improved relations with the US during an at-sea summit with President Bush in December.

The withdrawal of all Soviet troops from Afghanistan was completed Feb. 15. On Oct. 23, Shevardnadze called the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan an illegal act.

Gorbachev cut defense outlays. By April, Soviet forces began to leave Eastern Europe; Gorbachev had pledged in 1988 to remove 50,000 troops and 10,000 main battle tanks by the end of 1991 from Hungary, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. In July, he called for negotiations on short-range missiles. Elimination of chemical weapons stockpiles was offered in September. On Oct. 26 in Helsinki, Gorbachev announced unilateral steps toward creating a Baltic-Scandinavian zone free of nuclear weapons.

Abortion and the Court

On July 3, a US Supreme Court ruling gave states greater leeway to regulate abortions after the first three months of pregnancy. In Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, the court upheld a Missouri state law that requires doctors to conduct viability tests on fetuses thought to be 20 weeks old; it upheld the state's right to prevent the use of state-funded facilities or state employees for abortions unless the mother's life was in danger; and it upheld the state ban on using public funds to counsel or advise women to have an abortion. It also let stand the preamble to the Missouri state law asserting that life begins at conception.

The War on Drugs

The Bush administration's strike against Panama's Noriega at least in part responded to the US public's frustration over drugs, which reached a new peak in 1989, even though overall drug use has been declining in the US. Drug-related violence, accidents related to substance abuse, the continuing spread of crack cocaine, and the threat to American competitiveness posed by drugs in the workplace all added to the pressure for tougher action. A cabinet-level post of drug policy director, assigned to William Bennett, was created to coordinate the efforts of various federal agencies.

Critics point to overflowing prisons and treatment centers as signs of the work that remains.

Hurricane Hugo and Loma Prieta Earthquake

Hurricane Hugo and the Loma Prieta earthquake (popularly referred to as the ``San Francisco'' quake) near Santa Cruz, Calif., tested US disaster preparedness. Hugo's rain, storm surge, and 140-mile-an-hour winds hit the US mainland near Charleston, S.C., around midnight Sept. 21. The quake struck Oct. 17.

The hurricane has prompted federal officials to look for ways to improve their response time and to help residents understand more clearly the disaster-relief roles played by federal, state, and local governments and private agencies. The earthquake led to calls for better building codes and preparedness measures.

Voyager 2's Solar System Tour

Voyager 2's inspection of Neptune and its moon Triton last August completed one of the great epochs in human exploration - the first on-site survey of our planetary system. Only tiny Pluto and its moon Charon are unexplored.

The previously known moons - Triton and Nereid - have been accurately sized and weighed and six newly discovered moons added to the catalog. The planet itself has revealed striking cloud features whose apparent motion suggests supersonic winds. The atmosphere has been found to be mostly hydrogen.

The US Elections

State and local elections saw gains for blacks. Democrat L. Douglas Wilder became the nation's first elected black governor when he defeated Republican J. Marshall Coleman in Virginia. New York got its first black mayor when Manhattan borough president David Dinkins, a Democrat, beat Republican Rudolph Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor. Blacks were also elected to mayor's posts for the first time in Seattle, New Haven, Conn., and Durham, N.C.

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