Saturday, Dec. 07, 1996

The Walls Come Down

Europeans on both sides of the Iron Curtain began the decade of the '80s feeling sorry for themselves. Suffering from oil-price shock, stagflation and political inertia, East and West alike were hoping for signs of an upturn. Worried about the demise of detente that followed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, they desperately sought assurances that the nations of NATO and the Warsaw Pact could find ways to coexist without blundering into war. A small dose of bolstering would have sufficed to cheer up Europe. What it got instead was a rebirth, a historic, epoch-ending transformation that almost exhausted the supply of superlatives in every language of the Continent.

The end of the cold war came as a surprise. One reason was that the West was accustomed to viewing the U.S.S.R. almost exclusively through a military prism. Weaponry was overwhelmingly the subject of East-West discussions, and officials on both sides tended to believe the relationship was healthy if they were making progress on arms control. By that criterion, which in the end contributed only a footnote to history, things were not going well in 1980. Even though Presidents Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev had sealed the SALT II agreement with a kiss in Vienna, it was dead a few months later, the victim of the invasion of Afghanistan and a suspicious U.S. Senate. Just as worrisome, the Soviets were going ahead with deployment of a new generation of big, three-headed missiles, the SS-20s, targeted on Western Europe.

To the West, it looked like a significant strategic shift, and NATO adopted what became known as the "two-track decision." The alliance would offer not to deploy any additional missiles if the Warsaw Pact would eliminate the SS-20s, but in the meantime NATO would proceed with its own modernization: 572 new intermediate-range nuclear missiles.

All across Europe, hundreds of thousands of communists, peace activists, church leaders, students and nervous citizens poured into urban avenues and parks to protest NATOS's (not the Soviets') missile deployment. And while most of the world was watching the peace-loving throngs, something new was happening in Poland. It did not seem new at first because the Poles were forever going on strike. But this time the workers at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk formed a union that would actually represent the workers' interests against the state's. When the Polish government offered to negotiate, it gave de facto recognition to the right to strike. The result was the creation of Solidarity, the first labor organization inside the Soviet bloc to challenge head-on the communists' claim to represent the proletariat.

As Solidarity grew and threatened the stability of the Polish regime, Moscow faced a dilemma: Would it use its troops as it had in Hungary and Czechoslovakia? We know from recently opened archives that the Soviets were prepared to intervene, but only as a last resort. They much preferred to let the Polish communists handle the crisis themselves, knowing that an invading Soviet army would face opposition from the entire nation and might not even be able to end the strikes. Brezhnev & Co. decided against using force and settled for installing General Wojciech Jaruzelski and martial law. The decision would echo in Eastern Europe.

Soon thereafter, Moscow underwent a series of leadership changes that saw the dying out of the hard-line, undereducated Marxist-Leninist generation. Brezhnev, who had been ailing for years (and who had sometimes embarrassed his country by eating state dinners with a spoon), died in November 1982. His successor, Yuri Andropov, died in February 1984, and Andropov's successor, Konstantin Chernenko, expired a year after that.

Then came the man everyone had been waiting for: Mikhail Gorbachev, 54, an intelligent, energetic, apparently reasonable politician, of whom the "Iron Lady," Margaret Thatcher, had said, "We can do business together." Gorbachev became general secretary of the Communist Party, fully aware that the state of his country's economy was horrendous: outputs were falling, and there was no longer any way to increase inputs. Gorbachev thought at first that he could reinvigorate the society. He soon concluded that the system could not recover without perestroika, or restructuring. To take the pressure off the economy, he would have to cut back on military spending. To rejuvenate industry, he needed Western technology and investment, and to get those, he had to take the hostility out of the East-West relationship.

The end result of this "new thinking" about foreign relations was to set the communist regimes of Eastern Europe adrift, under instructions to figure out what reforms might make them palatable to their own citizens. At a Warsaw Pact meeting in the summer of 1989, Gorbachev put it bluntly, "Each people determines the future of its own country. There must be no interference from outside." The meaning was clear to the satraps of Eastern Europe: they should expect no support from the Soviet army if they tried to use force on dissenters at home. Some scrambled to reform, and some resisted, but they were all doomed. Communism was always an alien growth in that part of the world, a Russian occupation enforced by Soviet bayonets.

As the reality of Gorbachev's message dawned, Poland took the lead. Solidarity became a political party, then won a parliamentary election, then — at Jaruzelski's request — put one of its strategists, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, into the premiership. Soon Solidarity leader Lech Walesa was President of Poland. Meanwhile, Hungary took down its barbed-wire barriers to the West, literally dismantling a sector of the Iron Curtain, and thousands of East German vacationers swarmed through. Demonstrators in East German cities toppled Erich Honecker and his regime, and on Nov. 9, 1989, they dismantled, almost stone by stone, the stark symbol of communism's impotence: the Berlin Wall.

A similar bloodless onslaught, which Czech leader Vaclav Havel called the "velvet revolution," felled the communists in Prague and then in Sofia. In all the East bloc, only the December 1989 uprising that ended Nicolae Ceausescu's reign in Romania touched off bloodshed, and both the ousted dictator and his wife were executed. Still, the contemporary epigram had it about right: in the surge toward freedom, Poland took 10 years, Hungary 10 months, East Germany 10 weeks, Czechoslovakia 10 days and Romania 10 hours.

Gorbachev the liberator was not a success at home. The Soviet economy drifted further into decline, strikes erupted, and — most threatening of all — the constituent republics of the union began declaring their "sovereignty." Even so, Gorbachev plunged ahead with his version of reform and in February 1990 directed an overhaul of the Soviet constitution that eliminated Article 6, the provision that gave the Communist Party a monopoly on political power. That action marked the end of the cold war. A banner unfurled outside the Kremlin wall carried the reproach and the admission: 72 YEARS ON THE ROAD TO NOWHERE.

By now Gorbachev was no longer in control of the forces he had unleashed. His own position and the continued existence of the Soviet Union were both in peril. A new leader, an alternative to Gorbachev, had appeared in Moscow. Boris Yeltsin, Gorbachev's sworn enemy, had been elected President of the Russian republic, the largest region of the U.S.S.R. Yeltsin denounced Gorbachev as indecisive and accused him of "continuous compromise and half measures." He seemed about to snatch Russia from under Gorbachev's nose. A Soviet Union without Russia was not only inconceivable; it was impossible.

As another decade began, the next stage of revolution — secession — was already shaking the Soviet Union. In the neighbor states to the west, dizzying celebrations of freedom were giving way to a sober realization of how painful the road to a market economy was going to be. But Western Europe, jubilantly reassured, burst into a round of what an official rightly called Europhoria. With the end of the cold war, and with returning prosperity, came the political will to move forward with economic integration and the old dream of unifying the Continent. Britain physically joined Europe at the end of 1990 when, after three years of digging, French and British workers broke through to link their two sections of the tunnel under the English Channel. The 12 members of the European Community pledged to join in creating one market, the world's largest, by Dec. 31, 1992. Europe's next transformation would be from Community to Union.