During the 1980s, the news headlines indicated that a sweeping move toward democracy, not communism, was the new trend among world governments.
Progress toward increasing freedom began slowly in the early part of the decade as Poland’s Solidarity movement emerged. By 1986, a major transition in the leadership of the Kremlin was instituted when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev introduced his policies of perestroika (reconstruction) and glasnost (openness).
The torrential force released by these new ideas culminated during this last year of the decade with student demonstrations and the resulting massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. And in November, East Germany dismantled its communist government and effectively removed the scar of the Iron Curtain by opening the 28 year-old symbol of communist repression – the Berlin Wall.
What is happening in these countries is a part of an international movement toward democracy. According to Wan Runnan, a wealthy Chinese businessman and one of the key organizers of last spring’s student demonstration in Beijing, “What is happening in China and Eastern Europe is a worldwide trend. Communism will come to an end at the end of the century.”
In the early 1980s, Solidarity emerged as an illegal movement in Poland. Lech Walesa, leader of Poland’s trade union movement, has said that Poland was “a jumping off point to the entire Eastern Bloc – and also an experiment as a base of the next ones.”
Changes occurring in the Soviet Union today through perestroika, through the emergence of splinter parties in the Baltic States, and through reform in the rest of Eastern Europe could not have taken place without the efforts of the Solidarity movement. Though initially illegal, Solidarity struggled towards legal status, became legal, and was implemented by the government as a method of reform.
Now officially recognized by the Polish government, Poland’s Solidarity party is challenged by high expectations, and its success will continue to serve as a model for the rest of Eastern Europe in the 1990s. In Hungary, a slightly different situation has occurred. The more democratic elements within the communist government have been able to effect reform due to the policies of Mikhail Gorbachev.
In the Soviet Union during the 1980s, a weakening economy, the death of Leonid Brezhnev, a more democratic voting process, the election of a younger, less conservative government, and the emergence of Gorbachev has paved the way for the restructuring of many aspects of the largest nation in the world. The elimination of many communist conservatives within the Kremlin has also alleviated the mistrust of the Soviet Union among the nations of the West.
The turnaround in the Soviet Union’s expansionist policies occurred in the mid-1980s when it became apparent that Soviet troops had failed to exert control over Afganistan. The Soviet republics of Armenia and Azerbaijan are now on the brink of a war over a territorial dispute; the Azerbaijani Popular Front has asserted Azerbaijan’s right to secede from the Soviet Union. Should Azerbaijan secede, it is unlikely that the Soviet government would be in favor of fighting another war against united Muslim nationalists.
In the Baltic States and the Soviet Republic of the Ukraine, similar popular fronts have emerged. In the Soviet republics of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, a nationalistic fervor has been growing so quickly that the Kremlin has taken seriously the Baltic States’ threat of secession but has been unable to keep up with the demand for reform. In the Ukraine, an autonomy movement has been launched which has called for an independent Ukraine within a free union of independent republics.
The legislature of Soviet Georgia recently announced that the annexation of the republic to Soviet Union 70 years ago was the result of wrongful military intervention and that the republic has the right to secede. At a time when ethnic tensions and demonstrations for autonomy are mounting, Soviet Georgia’s talk of leaving the Soviet Union further complicates the Kremlin’s attempt to keep the 15 Soviet republics from dissolving into independent nations.
More recently, the nations of Eastern Europe have followed suit. In East Germany, protesters continued to demonstrate for greater freedom while the Communist Party struggled for survival. In Czechoslovakia, an estimated 30,000 protesters marched through the streets of Prague, and in Sofia, Bulgaria, thousands rallied for democratic change and demanded the legalization of independent political groups.
Impending economic disaster has sent the population of many communist countries into social upheaval. The dismantling of rigid hierarchical government structures was a necessary response to social and economic turmoil.
Perhaps nowhere was this pattern so evident as in mainland China, where the economy has been failing at an alarming rate since the massacre on June 4th. Despite the government’s attempt to cover up the massacre, many Chinese know the truth about Tiananmen Square. The government, once open to reforms, responded to the May student uprising by using the most repressive measures since the Cultural Revolution. However, the winds of change are sweeping quickly through China.
Wan Runnan, one of the Chinese democracy movement’s most influential leaders, is currently organizing the Federation for a Democratic China. Wan encourages Chinese students studying in foreign countries to stay overseas for as long as possible and to return to China at an opportune time.
Wan has predicted that the ensuing economic disaster will force the Li Peng regime to step down from China’s leadership. At that time, Wan believes, the government will use Li Peng as a scapegoat, blaming him for China’s economic woes. Li Peng will be held responsible for the massacre, and the student demonstrators will be reevaluated as patriots. Within 10 years, the current generation studying overseas will be able to play a strategic role in restructuring Chinese government and society.
The worldwide movement toward democracy is accelerating as students are beginning to question the tenets of Marxism and are embracing the democratic ideals of basic human rights and a multi-party system. Communist Party members are grappling with the reality that the system of government promised to them by their leaders has degenerated into nothing more than corrupt totalitarianism. The common people are not concerned with political philosophies, but they know that they have been exploited, and their voices, too, are ascending in a cry for freedom.
As we close out this century, we are fast approaching a time when totalitarian communism will have become an anachronistic system of a bygone era.
Sidebar: The Roots of Democracy
Democracy can be understood as a trend which has its roots in Christian philosophy. “Government of the people, by the people and for the people” is a phrase coined by John Wycliffe, a 14th century Catholic monk whose English Bible sparked a social revolution in England. Wycliffe’s theology later provided the foundation for the Protestant Reformation.
The trend toward increasing liberty for the common people was continued by Christian philosophers such as John Hus, John Calvin, and John Locke. The accumulated philosophy of these great thinkers provided the basis for American democracy.
The Puritans, whose mass exodus from England in the 17th century formed one of the first permanent colonies in the New World, were the first to implement democratic government. Since that time, democracy has been consistently promoted by the Christian community. History has shown us that the nations of the world are seldom able to responsibly handle the rights afforded by democracy without a strong church upholding the moral standards of the population in that society.
The French Revolution of 1789 resulted in moral chaos and political anarchy, while America’s War for Independence in 1776 provided for the creation of a stable government and a united nation. The point of division between France and America was that, unlike the French, Americans had experienced a strong renewal of Christianity during the Great Awakening several decades prior to the Revolutionary War. Americans were better able to handle the responsibility of democracy due to spiritual preparation.
The same pattern is being repeated in the communist countries of the world today. In countries where there is strong spiritual revival in the churches, such as Poland, the Baltic States, and Hungary, the democracy movement has had the strongest growth. It remains to be seen whether or not the house church movement in China, which has grown to 50 million in the last 20 years, is strong enough to provide the moral leadership needed to support a democratic society.