Revisiting 1989: The Specter Still Haunts

By Ghodsee, Kristen | Dissent, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Revisiting 1989: The Specter Still Haunts


Ghodsee, Kristen, Dissent


In January 2010,1 met a Bulgarian friend for dinner in a Georgetown pizza parlor. This friend, whom I will call Svetozara, had recently immigrated to the United States and was looking for a job in D. C. Recently divorced after twenty-six years of marriage, she had been a lawyer in Bulgaria, and one of a core of pro-democracy activists who had been politically influential during Bulgaria's transition from communism.

With her liberal colleagues, Svetozara had fought hard to banish communist influences from the Bulgarian government and economy. She believed that democracy and the institution of free markets would improve the lives of her compatriots after more than four decades of totalitarian rule and had worked to make sure that post-1989 elections were free and fair. She had helped reorganize local governments to make them more responsive to citizens' needs and had supported legislation to make the Bulgarian government less bureaucratic and more open and transparent. She had been a darling of liberal reformers come from the West to dismantle the centralized state and the command economy.

During the first glass of wine, we caught up on each other's personal lives; after the second glass, the conversation turned to politics. I remarked that nothing had been done in Bulgaria to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall. She nodded.

'That is because there is nothing to celebrate."

"What do you mean?"

Svetozara lowered her glass, and gently pinched the stem. She stared down at the table.

"I can't tell you how disgusted I am, Kristen. I feel like such an idiot. I thought we were fighting on the right side. I thought we were fighting for freedom, for democracy, for principles that I believed in. But it was all a lie. What we have now is worse than what we had before. I used to think that maybe we did something wrong, but now I realize that the whole thing was rotten from the start; 1989 was not about bringing liberty to the people of Eastern Europe; it was about expanding markets for Western companies. They used the language of freedom and democracy, but it was all about money. I was so stupid."

"You were idealistic. That's different."

"No, it's worse, from my point of view. I never understood how people could have supported a terrible system like communism, but now I see that they made the same mistake that I made. They believed in something that they thought was good, but that turned out to be very bad. I did the exact same thing. Only the system I helped to build is maybe worse than the system that they did."

There was a long silence before the bouncy college-student server came to ask if we wanted dessert. Svetozara ordered another glass of wine. I wanted to press her for details, because I knew that she knew a lot about the inner workings of the transition, but that night, I, too, ordered another glass of wine, and changed the subject. She was starting a new life. Better not to dwell on the past.

A few months after that conversation, the East German writer Daniela Dann gave a lecture at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore titled, "Twenty Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall: The Legacy of Democratic Awakening." Dann had been a political activist in the German Democratic Republic in the years leading up to 1989 and was instrumental in drafting new laws to eradicate state censorship and guarantee a free press. With her fellow dissidents. Dann had participated in the process of imagining a new future for East Germany, a new democratic socialist future. She explained, "As I grew up in the GDR, I always longed to live in a democracy. But not in capitalism. I had no illusions about its tendency to economic and financial crises, its power to create a social divide between the rich and poor, and its inclination to military solutions."

Dann cited an opinion poll taken at the end of November 1989 that showed that 89 percent of East Germans preferred to take "the path to better, reformed socialism," with only 5 percent supporting the "capitalist path. …

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