The assumption that the replication of 1989 is both possible and desirable ignores much of the unique character of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in Central and Eastern Europe, debates ensued regarding the nature of systemic change. Did the domino-like, state-by-state collapse of communism across the region constitute a revolution, a restoration, or even, in the clever 1989 formulation of British historian Timothy Garton Ash, a “refolution”, combining the elements of reform and revolution? François Furet and Jürgen Habermas both suggested there was nothing “new” inherent in either the programs or ideals of 1989.[i]

Mikhail Gorbachev

One important feature united the commentators in this discussion: the commitment to non-violence on the part of key domestic and international players in most states save for a short-lived civil conflict in Romania (from the nomenklatura to dissidents domestically, as well as the restraint of both Western leaders and then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev).

Principled commitment

In 2003, I argued that 1989 represented a revolution in the very idea of revolution—simultaneously self-limiting with far-reaching impact via a principled commitment to non-violence. In states ranging from Serbia in 2000, Ukraine in 2004 or 2014, Iran in 2009 to Egypt in 2011, the idea of peaceful or “velvet” revolution became part of the civil resistance playbook in responding to or even unseating authoritarian leaders.[ii]

However attractive the model of non-violent revolution that 1989 represented, it is unlikely to be replicated in the near future, despite the growth of academic and activist research and support for non-violent resistance. Recent efforts of “replicating” 1989 have been whole or at least partial failures.

Serbia, while democratic, sits uneasily at the edge of the European Union. Ukraine has strengthened democratic institutions yet is simultaneously mired in a frozen conflict in Donetsk and Luhansk, having already lost the Crimean Peninsula to unwelcome Russian annexation. The 2009 “Green Revolution” in Iran and the 2011 Arab Spring in Egypt have been defeated.

The current constellation of multipolar great power politics makes international agreement on conflict resolution difficult either through the United Nations or regional security organizations. The decline in the soft power attractiveness not only of the United States but even of liberal democracy more generally given the rise of populist, illiberal, nativist and nationalist sentiment has undermined the legitimacy of the democratic project.

An international legal regime and transitional justice paradigm dis-incentivizes unpopular authoritarians to peacefully step away from power. The fraught operationalization/moral hazard associated with the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, have made non-violent revolutions far less likely as a model for the future. Given the disastrous consequences of the UN-sponsored Libyan mission and the conflict in Syria ending decidedly in Bashar al-Assad’s favour, order and basic human security are currently more fundamental than questions of regime type, citizen engagement or the more expansive protection of human rights.

More generally, contemporary authoritarian states are far deadlier and more punitive than their post-Stalinist East European predecessors in their response to resistance and dissent.

Returning to revolutionary violence

The current constellation of political, economic and social forces intersect to structurally render a repeat of 1989, or some form of non-violent revolution, nearly impossible.  Why might a return of revolution or attempted revolutionary change with violence be more likely, given that 1989 proved that dramatic change could occur without recourse to violence?

Obviously, there are no simple answers or monocausal explanations, and more case-specific and comparative research needs to be done on “unsuccessful” efforts.  Jennifer Welsh, responding to Fukuyama’s thesis about the end of history, suggests that we are in the midst of a “return” to history, one aspect of which is increasing and increasingly barbaric levels of violence, xenophobia, and inequality. Here, I sketch out some of the factors that currently render the structural and ideological conditions for a repeat of 1989 specifically or for a non-violent revolution more generally, unlikely to be repeated in the short to medium term.

Tarnished superpower

Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump and Mike Pence

The United States is not in the same position of global leadership. Almost a decade after 9/11  and multiple military interventions later, the reputation of the remaining superpower is tarnished. The United States has entered a period of relative weakness if not outright decline (at least in terms of soft power), even prior to the election of Donald J. Trump. Failure to deliver sustainable security and better governance have precipitated ongoing regional and transnational security concerns, even leaving aside substandard economic performance in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The United States is not as well regarded in former Soviet or communist states as it was in the 1970s and 1980s in Central and Eastern Europe, let alone in contemporary North Africa or the Middle East. The failure to deliver on the promises of regime change, especially when aided and abetted by military coalitions of the willing, has been profound.

The attractiveness of American soft power took a hit under the presidency of George W. Bush and is taking a further nosedive under Donald J. Trump. Moreover, the post-intervention political failure of Iraq—aided and abetted by the disastrous policies of de-Baathification and the disbanding of the Republican Guard—was arguably the single biggest contributing factor leading to the rise of ISIS.

The long game

We are also witnessing the return of great power politics, in an increasingly multipolar world where global and regional leaders can effectively delegitimize internal dissent and checkmate revisionist politics within neighbouring states within their zone of influence. Indeed, such approaches mesh neatly with nationalist revisionism and populism, as we have seen in Russia, China, and India.

The Arab Spring, even if what has occurred is regarded as “round one” in a longer game, has been largely a failure. What began as street protests against rulers whose longevity was well past their best-before date (Mubarek in Egypt or Gaddafi in Libya) did not usher in a successful revolution, “refolution” or a “fourth wave” of democratization in the Middle East and North Africa. To be sure, the Internet and social media functioned as a force multiplier in getting millions into the streets, but speed cannot replace the slow building of movements and coalitions that focus on the de minimus consensus needed both strategically and tactically to sustain oppositions over the long haul.

2011 proved that you cannot replicate 1989 in hyperdrive. Zeynep Tufekci discusses how digital technologies, have generated “tactical freeze” whereby the adhocracy and leaderlessness of movements make it difficult to establish either concrete or negotiable demands.

Asef Bayat outlines some of the paradoxes of limited or refolutionary approaches that the Arab Spring painfully made clear. Citizen activists feel more entitled to higher expectations, while their very creative disruption renders delivery on such expectations difficult in the short term. Minimally, non-violent or even minimally-violent people power approaches are supposed to keep basic services functioning, yet “there develops a powerful quest to transform those very institutions—expelling their bosses, altering rules of the game, and bringing in new blood—as a way to inculcate new political order”.

No more tolerance

States such as China, North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Egypt, are far less tolerant of dissent than the rulers of late communism. Post-Stalinism repressed or limited choices but were relatively safe and secure. After the 1950s dissidents were arrested but not tortured, and national party-states avoided purge trials and executions. Increasingly contemporary Russia also stifles the effectiveness of opposition and any serious challenges to the ruling hegemony.

Under late communism, law may have been deeply politicized, but law existed, and a rational process of technocratic bureaucratization ensured a social safety net for all and advanced education and economic opportunities for many (especially for the nomenklatura). Both the instrumental demonization of communism for political ends and communo-nostalgia exist, both of which make any honest and clear-eyed assessment of the past in terms of popular discourse difficult.

As Aviezer Tucker points out, only  “rough justice” was possible during and after the transition, either in terms of retribution or restoration, given the overall costs and procedural challenges involved  Such processes have fed conspiracy theories about the nature of change in 1989 as well as generating real grievances and legitimation challenges.

There may here now exists a different calculus for potential withdrawal from power for unpopular authoritarians. Given the advancement of international criminal law, the existence of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the ex post facto creation of hybrid courts for crimes of the past (such as in Cambodia) there simply is no soft landing in the south of France (as there was for Jean-François Duvalier of Haiti) or Hawaii (as was the case for Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines)—the brutal and human rights-abusing authoritarians of yesteryear.

A different incentive structure is in play. Gorbachev may have won the Nobel Prize, but in the Putinesque and even populist calculus in contemporary Russia, he was also responsible for the dissolution of the Soviet Union—thus ending superpower status and bringing shame and economic disaster on “the nation.”

Bashar al-Assad

Bashar al-Assad had no choice but to fight for his version of Syria and has effectively won. Had he not, his own personal alternative would have been permanent exile and inability to travel anywhere given the increasing reach of universal jurisdiction.[iii] It is hard to imagine Kim Jong Un willingly give up power, or any domestic forces of non-violent dissent having a chance of success. North Korea is remarkably autarkic, relatively immune to even the smartest of sanctions.

We need to examine whether the ICC generates a “reverse effect”—whereby potential indictment increases the stakes and the personal survival of the authoritarian leader as an autonomous individual is at stake—not the case in either 1989 in Eastern Europe or 1991 in the Soviet Union.

Able students

Authoritarians themselves are proving to be adept and able students of the history and practice of non-violent regime change—and are ever more determined to avoid the conditions that made such change possible. During and after Iran’s failed “Green Revolution” in 2009, the regime actively searched for and discounted anything that smacked of “velvet” revolution, and responded not only with violent reprisals, but also a series of show trials resulting in periods of long imprisonment and even execution.

The Iranian fixation with prohibiting a “velvet” revolution and ongoing Russian accusations of deliberate government sponsorship of the “coloured revolutions” happily coexist with conspiracy theory regarding the tentacles of American global domination. Indeed, the United States unwittingly fed this narrative via its post-9/11 interventions and the triumphalist discourse both in government and academic circles about “winning” the Cold War.

A unique character

The assumption that the replication of 1989 is both possible and desirable ignores much of the unique character of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, where there was a wilfully retreating hegemon, oppositions-in-waiting given the decades-long cultivation of dissent, weak and non-performing governments, in some cases previous experiences with democracy, shared cultural and historical experiences with Western European democratic states, and populations willing to literally exit, voice and loyalty.

These are not small differences. Non-violence worked to a large degree in 1989 not only because of the discipline and social trust among the non-government and opposition forces but because the leaders-in-withdrawal hesitated to use violence and could rely neither on the USSR nor likely even on their own security forces.


This article is an extract of a longer paper titled “Rethinking 1989 as Revolutionary Recipe” presented by Barbara J. Falk to the Association for the Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies. Register for free to download a PDF version below.


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[i] Furet (quoted by Ralf Dahrendorf) stated that “with all the fuss and the noise, not a single new idea has come out of Eastern Europe in 1989.” Habermas referred to the events of 1989 as the nachholende revolution—usually translated as “rectifying” but also with the sense of looking backwards, implying nothing new or original.

[ii] “Velvet” as appended to “Revolution” first appeared to describe the peaceful, non-violent negotiated transfer of power in Czechoslovakia in November-December 1989.

[iii] Assad would be not subject to indictment by the International Criminal Court given Syria is not a state party, but there is currently an International Documentation Center collecting forensic and other evidence that could be used in future prosecution(s).

Barbara J. Falk is Associate Professor in the Department of Defence Studies at the Canadian Forces College/Royal Military College of Canada in Toronto. She is well known for her work on comparative dissent, Cold War history and politics, security and terrorism law and policy and political trials.

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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