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Similarities and Differences between Eastern Europe in 1989 and the Middle East in 2011

- May 30, 2011

We are pleased to have another guest post from Marc Morjé Howard on the differences and similarities between the 2011 revolutions in the Middle East and the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe. See here, here, and here for some of our earlier posts on this.


In his speech on Saturday in Warsaw, President Obama alluded to the similarity between recent developments in the Middle East and the revolutions that overthrew communism in Poland and Eastern Europe over two decades ago.  But how do those two situations compare?  This post (adapted from remarks made at a panel at American University on March 25 on “Uprisings in the Middle East:  A Social Movement & Comparative Perspective”) lists five similarities and ten differences.  It concludes by explaining why the latter outweigh the former.


1) Neither set of movements was predicted—even by experts.  Although for some this may raise questions about the value of “expertise,” in my view it puts into question the importance of prediction.  Contingent events and human behavior in unknown situations are impossible to predict.  The fact that most scholars failed to predict the particular decisions made by leaders like Gorbachev, Ceausescu, Ben-Ali, or Mubarak does not necessarily mean that they did not understand the regime or society.  And it certainly does not mean we should stop studying countries, areas, and languages.  Social science still has much to offer.

2) A key part of the anti-regime movements in both Eastern Europe and the Middle East resulted from elite defections, as political/military/security forces changed loyalties.  The regimes were not monolithic, and the opposition gained strength as certain former leaders changed sides at pivotal points.

3) Although both sets of movements involved national events that were filtered through domestic contexts, they were also clear illustrations of the “international demonstration effect,” or “snowballing.”  In Eastern Europe, the movements spread from Poland to Hungary to East Germany to Czechoslovakia to Romania and Bulgaria, and eventually to the Baltics, Ukraine, and even Russia itself.  In the Middle East, they have spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and even Syria.

4) The regional concentration in both cases has been remarkable, making it easy to follow by simply looking at a geographic map.  Whereas earlier theories of democratization (preceding the events of 1989) focused on its domestic dynamics, clearly it has become a regional phenomenon, influenced by larger international factors as well.

5) The remarkable events in both regions provide a powerful challenge to easy and dismissive arguments about whether people in certain cultures yearn for freedom.  There is clearly a powerful thirst for greater social justice and democracy—though it remains to be seen whether this becomes realized in new institutions that live up to these popular desires.


1) The larger geo-strategic environment is very different today.  The movements of 1989 took place within the context of the Cold War, with two main super-powers and their mutually assured destruction.  Today there are numerous complicating factors—some of which existed previously, but now have their own post-Cold War dynamic—including oil, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the rise of China, and many others.

2) It is important to remember that the East European states were not autonomous.  Indeed, the Soviet Union was the guarantor of stability and continuity in the region.  When Gorbachev made it clear that the Soviet Union would not intervene in Eastern Europe, the gates opened (quite literally in Hungary).  Today’s Middle East contains a mix of small and large states with different levels of autonomy, but there is no equivalent to the Soviet Union lurking in the shadows.

3) The 1989 movements were not the first democratic protests in the region.  Earlier movements had taken place in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland in 1980-81), but these were all crushed.  Nonetheless, they still stood as important precedents, to both the regime and the citizenry, which became useful later.  Although dissent has been brewing in the Middle East for the past decade, there are no comparable precedents to these earlier East European movements.

4) The East European movements generally fit the classic (from O’Donnell and Schmitter’s Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, published in 1986) model of elite agency, whereby divisions between hard-liners and soft-liners in the regime led to pacts with the opposition, resulting in compromises on both sides.  In this model, the “resurrection” of civil society only came later.  In the Middle East, in contrast, the “popular upsurge” came first, before the elite divisions became apparent.

5) Unlike today in the Middle East, when the “opposition” is largely faceless, in Eastern Europe there were well-recognized dissidents who had much popular legitimacy.  Although they may have been small in number, these writers, pastors, and environmental leaders were quite influential.  In contrast, many of the long-standing opposition leaders in the countries of the Middle East are ineffective, coopted, or disconnected from contentious politics, thus contributing to the large gap between elite opposition politics and popular demands for democratic change.

6) Except for the Catholic Church in Poland, religion was almost entirely absent in the East European movements.  Although churches were sometimes a “safe zone” in communist countries, the movements themselves were not religious, and the societies are the least religious in the world.  In contrast, in the Middle East, although the movements have not been particularly religious, the societies certainly are, and the role of religion in political life remains a big, open, unanswered question.

7) All movements depend on communication—this has not changed—but the speed of the new media has obviously changed tremendously.  Much of the information in the East European movements spread via samizdat (precious photocopies of texts and information from the outside that were smuggled around secretly).  Today the spread of information is almost instantaneous via Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.

8)  After the movements of 1989 ran their course, the communist regimes actually fell (even if they reorganized and competed electorally in some cases).  In the Middle East, this has not happened (yet?).  The outcomes of the ongoing transitions in Egypt and Tunisia are unclear, and it remains to be seen whether they will yield a clean break from authoritarian politics.  In the other countries, autocrats still remain in charge, even if they have been shaken by the protests.

9) Extending from point 5, when the communist regimes fell, known opposition leaders were ready to assume office.  Poland’s Lech Walesa and Czechoslovakia’s Václav Havel were the most prominent, but most East European countries had new leaders ready to fill the gap.  This remains an open question in the Middle East.

10) In terms of the eventual consolidation of democracy in Eastern Europe, NATO and the European Union have played crucial roles by encouraging democratic reforms and making them conditions of membership.  There are no equivalent regional organizations in the Middle East that could help to push these regimes to further democratize, and they are certainly not going to be invited to join NATO or the EU.

Concluding Points:

The 2011 movements in the Middle East have been beautiful, inspiring, and worth supporting.  They are certainly reminiscent of the 1989 revolutions in Eastern Europe in many respects.  Yet a closer inspection shows that the important similarities are nonetheless outweighed by key differences.  As a result, I am pessimistic about the long-term effects of these movements and their ability to bring about consolidated democracy.

It is ironic, in my view, that so many observers have chosen the term “Arab Spring” to characterize these events.  It does not take an especially astute historical memory to recall that the East European analogue to this concept was in fact the “Prague Spring” of 1968.  In a sense, the term may actually be appropriate—even if unintentionally so—for the result in the Middle East may wind up looking more like the brutal crackdown and crushing of dissidents and opposition of 1968 than the successful democratizing revolutions of 1989.