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.

"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."

*Bulgarians have been holding massive street demonstrations in cities across the country for more than two weeks, demanding early elections that the ruling Socialist Party would certainly lose. The renamed Communist Party has ruled Bulgaria for all but a few months since 1989, avoiding difficult economic reforms while allegedly stealing state assets in massive corruption schemes in the financial and trade sectors.

Meanwhile, the economy has reached the verge of collapse, with 310-percent inflation, bread shortages, and mass impoverishment. Whoever governs Bulgaria in the next few months will have to undertake difficult economic reforms to avoid a total collapse, sources say, but these could trigger more widespread popular demonstrations.

*Serbia's demonstrations have continued for two months, with hundreds of thousands of people on the streets demanding that local elections results (which the opposition won) be restored. The huge demonstrations appear to be succeeding, with President Slobodan Milosevic's regime reendorsing local elections in the capital, Belgrade, and other major cities. Now protesters appear to be demanding Mr. Milosevic's ouster.

The demonstrators are motivated by personal economic peril, a desire for greater democracy, and a more normalized relationship with the West. However, the protesters generally have not taken Milosevic to task for his central role in the prosecution of two wars of aggression and the Bosnian genocide - a fact not lost on Bosnians and Croats.

*Croatia is ruled not by former Communists, but by a similarly corrupt nationalist government headed by Franjo Tudjman. Once seemingly invincible, Mr. Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) party has been losing public support since the end of the Yugoslav wars.

"People are growing tired of corruption and authoritarianism," says political commentator Zarko Puhovski in Zagreb, the capital. "The regime's time is limited."

When Mr. Tudjman tried to shut down the last free radio station in Zagreb in November, 100,000 protesters marched in the capital. The HDZ fared badly in local elections last year. Now with Tudjman reportedly in poor health, most analysts expect more-liberal political forces to make big gains in this year's general elections.

*Romania's recent political change is in many ways the most dramatic, although it was effected at ballot boxes, not in the streets.

In elections Nov. 3, Romanians voted out the neo-Communist government of Ion Illiescu in favor of a coalition of liberal democrats. Since coming to power a few weeks ago, President Emil Constantinescu has implemented difficult price increases, launched a war on corruption, and purged many officials who came into office during Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's long reign.

Mr. Illiescu came to power under mysterious circumstances during the 1989 revolution, and Mr. Constantinescu has promised to investigate and reveal the truth about the uprising, in which hundreds were killed.

"It's hard to say how things will turn out, but one thing's for sure," says Ognian Avramov, adviser to outgoing Bulgarian President Zhelu Zhelav. "It will be very difficult [for a government] to continue with business as usual as long as the protesters remain in the streets."

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