Opinion: It all began in Gdansk ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

East German students sitting atop the Berlin Wall while West German officials look on.
East German students sitting atop the Berlin Wall while West German officials look on. Source: University of Minnesota Institute of Advanced Studies

This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a signal and concrete, quite literally, event, which heralded the end of the Cold War.

Wolfgang Templin, who as an opposition politician in the former East Germany is better placed than most when looking at the significance of the events of 1989, both then and now.

Today, we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the peaceful revolutions during the fall of 1989. Once again, questions are raised about the decisive forces and supporters of these upheavals, as much as about the continued effect of their signals.

At previous anniversaries, heads of state and political leaders were centre-stage, with Mikhail Gorbachev being hailed as the "Prince of Peace". This autumn finally sees civic actors from the protests and demonstrations stepping into the limelight.

Several years ago, former Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski rightly noted:

"It was not the victory of diplomacy or alliances that transformed Europe, it was the desire of the people yearning for freedom."

The call for freedom was the most crucial signal of the fall of 1989.

On Nov. 9, heads of state and government representatives from around the world will gather at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. This time around, they are part of a weeks-long civic festival which aims to connect memories, expectations and questions about the future, with one another.

Jaroslaw Hutka, a singer who contributed to the Velvet Revolution in Prague, will be one of the highlights of this year's anniversary celebrations. He embodies the many participants, famous and unknown, in the events, as well as the European, international character of the fall of 1989.

In the former East Germany, numerous, but small and isolated, peace, environmental and human rights activists merged, to become the main political opposition which would act in a coordinated manner and mobilize a citizen movement containing hundreds of thousands of participants in the late 1980s.

On Oct. 9, Leipzig, in the former East Germany, became the flashpoint for the showdown with the militarised authority of the regime. The protesters' courage and determination forced the anxious and demoralised civil and military representatives of the state to capitulate.

The victory at Leipzig was part of a wildfire that had spread to all countries in the Eastern bloc: The independence movements within the Soviet Union, in the Baltic States, Georgia and Ukraine. In a chain of democratic revolutions, liberty prevailed over tyranny. The Iron Curtain fell and after decades of separation and division, Europe could finally grow together again. The decisive impulse for this watershed was the creation of the Polish union and political mass movement Solidarity, in the late summer of 1980. Thus the proud slogan "It all began in Gdansk" is indeed justified. What ensued was, to quote Czech statesman Vaclav Havel, the "power of the powerless".

With the help of Glasnost and Perestroika, Mikhail Gorbachev sought to save a system that was doomed to collapse. He inadvertently became its gravedigger, and had to witness the dissolution of this very Soviet Union he had tried to keep alive.

The Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania used this watershed moment, joining the other countries of the Eastern bloc to radically transform their political systems. Around 15 years later, their advancements helped them become full-fledged members of the European Union.

Some of those countries that had dissociated themselves from the core Soviet Union, such as Ukraine and Georgia, still have the toughest part of their journey ahead of them. At the very latest, since 2008 they have been threatened by the hegemonic aspirations of a neo-imperialist Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin.

It was in the 1990s when the hope of establishing good neighbourly relations between sovereign, eastern European countries and a democratic Russian Federation turned sour. The poison of Greater Russian chauvinism remains effective.

The Lithuanian patriot and independence fighter Vytautas Landsbergis followed these developments with great attention. When asked about his views on the meaning of the year 1989, he replied: "Back then we won one battle and were waiting for another".

Landsbergis regards the changeover from Yeltsin to Putin and the defeat of Russian reformists as a phase of increased risks and dangers. He believes that Russia intends to rule over its vicinity once more. Vladimir Putin and his followers, Landsbergis suggests, loved fearful and submissive – or what he calls "pacified" - neighbors.

Only the membership of NATO and the European Union protects the Baltic States and Poland from the same fate that befell Georgia and Ukraine; from offensive wars and overt annexation. Nonetheless, the constant provocations from the Russian side are a reality.

Beyond what Russia defines as its "immediate neighborhood", the Russian arsenal of covert warfare is now directed at the entire European Union and its supposed decadence and feebleness, juxtaposed with Russia's own authoritarian-dictatorial model.

Dreams of an alternate Eurasian Union are being revived, even though they had been consigned to the dustbin of history for a long time.

If the countries of western Europe and their political actors had ever been under the illusion that this new Russia could be a strategic partner to solve international crises and conflicts, it is now definitely time to abandon these hopes. Under the rule of Putin and the Siloviki (a politician who came from the security, military, or similar services-ed.), Russia has become a strategic adversary that has to be faced with a consistent stance. Part of this stance must be ever-tightening sanctions. Another part of this must be the presence of NATO troops on our vulnerable eastern flank. The agreement to construct the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline was driven by German and west European economic interests and, crucially, sends a fatal signal of political weakness eastwards.

Positive experiences of the last thirty years, the last couple of years, and recent months show this: Our partners and allies are the members of Russian society that fought and continue to fight for their survival and their last freedoms, those that organize protests and demonstrations, those that want to bring Russia back on the democratic path.

Both the courage of its actors and also international signals, such as the bravery of protesters in Hong Kong, Turkey and the Middle East, carry on this message of freedom that reverberated throughout Europe in 1989.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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