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Peaceful revolutions


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Bulgaria 1990

In November 1989, demonstrations on ecological issues were staged in Sofia, and these soon broadened into a general campaign for political reform.1 Environmental and labor movements took the lead in the initial phases of an emerging popular civic coalition (the United Democratic Front) that pressed the country’s hard-line communist leadership to abandon its monopoly on power. At the same time that the Cold War’s most famed symbol–the Berlin wall–was literally being torn down, Bulgaria’s iron-fisted leader of thirty-five years, Todor Zhivkov, resigned from power on November 10, 1989.2 Protests and strikes continued and finally led to multiparty elections in mid-1990. The ruling communist party changed its name to the Bulgarian Socialist Party and won the June 1990 elections. Following a period of social unrest and the passage of a new constitution, the first fully democratic parliamentary elections were held in 1991, and the United Democratic Front won. The first direct presidential elections were held the following year.3



Bangladesh 1990

In Bangladesh, the restoration of democracy began on December 6, 1990 when President Lt. General Hossain Mohammad Ershad, who had seized power in a 1982 military coup, abruptly resigned after weeks of escalating civilian protests against authoritarian rule. The movement against the Ershad government had become prominent in 1987, when the influential Awami League and the Bangladeshi Nationalist Party demanded the president’s resignation and free elections. The mass demonstrations, accompanied by some violence, were suppressed after a state of emergency was proclaimed (Karatnycky and Ackerman, 2005).

The final months of 1987 saw a strong anti-Ershad movement. On November 10, the Awami League observed “Dhaka Siege Day.” A worker of the Awami Jubo League, Noror Hossain, made himself a walking poster by having these slogans painted on his chest and back: “Let Democracy be Free” and “Down with Autocracy.” The police fatally shot him. The Ershad government was frightened by public anger, and the next day put the leader of the Awami League, Sheikh Hasina, under house arrest.

Quite a few leaders and activists of the Awami League and its constituent organizations courted arrest in this new phase of movement against Ershad. When she was freed from house arrest, Sheikh Hasina addressed a public meeting in Chittagong on January 24, 1987. On the way, her truck was attacked by the police and the paramilitary forces, which fired indiscriminately and killed about 50 people. The main target of this infamous “January 24 Genocide” was Sheikh Hasina herself. The anti-Ershad movement rose to a crescendo during 1987. Ershad for his part attempted a new strategy to quell the popular uprising; he dissolved the parliament and unleashed a reign of terror on the opposition political parties. When he arranged for an election on March 3, 1988, almost all parties boycotted it. But he managed to get the “State Religion Bill” passed by the 8th Amendment of the Constitution in this “rubber-stamp” parliament. The Awami League protested the bill and organized demonstrations all Bangladesh.

When the concentrated efforts of various political parties, alliances, and professional organizations came to naught, Sheikh Hasina came forward with a plan for Ershad’s resignation in a mammoth meeting at Panthapath of Dhaka on November 6, 1990. She suggested that Ershad should quit after handing over power to a neutral nonpartisan person under articles 51 and 55 of the Constitution. Consequently, Ershad was finally forced to resign on December 4, 1990. On December 6, he handed power over to a neutral caretaker government headed by Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Thus the nine-year autocratic rule of Ershad came to an end.4

The Soviet Union

When the Soviet Union was dissolved, sixteen new countries was born, all with different histories, some “born again” after decades of occupation. The breakdown of the Soviet Empire was in itself a complex process, and the birth of the new countries all had different and complex processes. The examples mentioned below are those cases in which the birth of the new countries happened with the support of a strong and nonviolent civic influence. They all had in common help from the perestroika and glasnost implemented by Gorbachev, and they had all seen the developments in Poland. But they also each had their own uniqueness.



Moldova 1990

Moldova’s path to independence was driven by the Moldovan Popular Front (MPF). The front, formed in 1989, first pressed for cultural autonomy, later for statehood. The MPF derived its primary support from the Romanians, who comprised nearly two-thirds of the population (Karatnycky and Ackerman, 2005). In February 1990, the MPF organized a "Republic's Voters Meeting" attended by more than 100,000 people. The first democratic elections were held for the Supreme Soviet of the Moldavian SSR. Runoff elections are held in March 1990. Mircea Snegur was elected the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of Moldova.

In June 1990 the name of the Moldovian Soviet Socialist Republic was changed to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova, and the Supreme Soviet of Moldova adopted a declaration of sovereignty. In May 1991, the Soviet Socialist Republic of Moldova was renamed the Republic of Moldova, and the Supreme Soviet changed its name to the Moldovan Parliament.5

Mongolia 1990

In the wake of the 1989 East European anti-communist revolutions, a group of Mongolian dissidents initiated public civic gatherings. On the morning of December 10, 1989, the first open pro-democracy demonstration met in front of the Youth Palace in Ulan Bator. As the crowd gathered, Elbegdorj Tsakhia, one of the organizers, announced the establishment of a Mongolian democratic movement.6 This became the core of the nonviolent reform movement. These unofficial civil society meetings gave birth to several prominent political groups, including the Mongolian Democratic Union (MDU), which organized popular street protests and hunger strikes.

The MDU, which was labeled an "unauthorized organization" by the government-controlled media, held several rallies in Ulan Bator, first to voice support and Great Hural7 documents on socioeconomic reconstruction, and later to demand democracy, government reform, and a multiparty system. It also advocated bringing Tsedenbal,8 who had been living in Moscow since 1984, to trial for having allowed Mongolia to stagnate during his thirty-two-year regime. An early response from the Political Bureau was the announcement that it had rehabilitated people who had been illegally repressed in the 1930s and 1940s. Amid contradictory reports on whether or not the party and government had both granted official recognition to the union and banned public assemblies and demonstrations, the media criticized the MDU for making "ridiculous and contradictory statements" about the administration's reform efforts. MDU members, believing that they were acting in defiance of the public assembly ban, continued to hold mass rallies and issue calls for action by the government. Despite the ambiguous status of the MDU, the government and party propelled the nation toward further reform and openness in the 1990s.9

Mongolia’s transition from Soviet satellite to democratic republic took a peaceful path partly due to fact that the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP)10 responded to growing civic protests by legalizing opposition parties and holding the country’s first multiparty elections in autumn 1990 (Karatnycky and Ackerman, 2005).



Lithuania 1990

In Lithuania the main oppositional movements in the late 1980s were Sajūdis11 and the Lithuanian Freedom League. The League organized a demonstration in Vilnius on August 23, 1987, at which several hundred people protested the Molotov-Ribentrop Pact with its secret protocol on its 48th anniversary. That was the starting point for Lithuania’s long process to achieve complete independence.

Sajūdis was originally a place for intellectuals in Vilnius to discuss politics, but it soon developed into a citizens’ movement. Three weeks after it was established in 1988, 50,000 demonstrated to support it. In July the underground Lithuanian Freedom League went public with a political program calling for independence. A few days later, 100,000 gathered in Vilnius’ Vingis Park to meet with the returning delegates from the 19th Communist Party Conference in Moscow. On August 23, Sajūdis sponsored a demonstration at which 200,000 people commemorated the loss of the country’s freedom due to the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

Lithuania has a growing environmental movement, which has been exploring the use of nonviolent actions. Early in September 1988, tens of thousands formed a human chain along the Baltic shore to protest its pollution. Two weeks later, 10,000 formed a human chain around the Ignalina nuclear power plant, demanding international inspections.

Demonstrations and other nonviolent actions grew in the fall and winter of 1988-1989.12 These remained nonviolent even when confronted with violent police and soldiers.

This most repressed of the republics started a “singing revolution," defying decades of cultural repression by reviving Lithuanian folk songs, festivals, religious practices, and traditions. The movie Gandhi was shown nationwide on television, enhancing the nonviolent resistance of the people.13

Trying to halt the dissolution of the Union, Moscow retaliated with a crippling blockade. On January 13, 1991, Russian soldiers occupied the main publishing company in Vilnius. Three days later they took control of the TV tower. Many people gathered to defend the tower. Their only weapons were joined arms and songs, but thirteen innocent and unarmed people were killed and several hundred wounded when Soviet troops shot them and ran them down with tanks. Lithuania called on its citizens to "hold to principles of nonviolent resistance and political and social noncooperation." They moved street signs to confuse the invaders, protected their parliament with unarmed civilians, and trained their volunteer militia in nonviolence.14

In the beginning, the goal of Sajūdis was to establish an autonomous Lithuanian republic and later an independent state. During the 1990 elections in the Lithuanian Soviet Republic, Sajūdis won an absolute majority, 101 out of 141 seats, which led to the declaration of independence on March 11, 1990. On that date, the Baltic state of Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to proclaim outright independence. On February 4, 1991, Iceland became the first country to recognize Lithuanian independence, and Sweden was the first country to open an embassy in Lithuania. The U.S. never recognized the USSR’s claim on Lithuania. The last Russian troops left Lithuania on August 31, 1993--even earlier than from East Germany.



Tajikistan 1991

Serious momentum for political change in the poorest Soviet republic began in 1990 under the newly formed national movement Rastokhez. Protests, some of them violently suppressed, focused on social and economic grievances (Karatnycky and Ackerman, 2005).

There was no serious challenge to the communist party’s grip on power until 1990, when police fired on a peaceful demonstration outside the Communist Party Central Committee Building in Dushanbe. This gave rise to the formation of organized political opposition groups in Tajikistan, whose leaders were very vocal in their demands for reform. Genuine political pluralism started to emerge in Tajikistan over the next two years as opposition parties staged dozens of peaceful demonstrations in Dushanbe, and forced the government to make occasional concessions. The four main opposition groups that began to lobby for changes in Tajikistan's political system were the Rastokhez15 movement, the Democratic Party of Tajikistan, the Islamic Renaissance Party, and the Lali Badakhshon.

Rastokhez began as a movement to promote the revival of Tajik culture and language during the Soviet period. Its leaders were Tajik intellectuals, and until 1990 it offered the only public forum for criticism of the communist party. The movement's political program advocated civil liberties and peaceful relations among Tajikistan's various nationalities. The leader of Rastokhez, Tohir Abdujabbor, even favored the preservation of a reformed Soviet Union.16 Independence was declared in September 1991.

The demonstrations for political change faced even more brutal police violence when an internal state of emergency was proclaimed by the authorities. The struggle for state power played out more or less peacefully, albeit with frequent public demonstrations in Dushanbe. Nine presidential candidates contested the first multiparty elections, which were won by a former leader of the communist party. Yet a popular consensus on the legitimacy of his presidency remained elusive. Tension between supporters of the government and the opposition parties intensified to the point that different factions took up weapons. Less than a year after independence, Tajikistan was engulfed in civil war.17

Azerbaijan 1991

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Azerbaijan declared independence on August 30 after 71 years of occupation by the Soviet Union. In the late 1980s a number of protests for independence took place in the capital, Baku. These were often met by violent armed police and military troops. In January 1990, Soviet troops killed at least 137 demonstrators18. An ongoing conflict with neighboring Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region took place at the same time as that republic got its independence, and raised the level of violence in Azerbaijan.

The Azerbaijani Popular Front (APF) was founded 1992 as a result of the massive civic protests that on some occasions measured hundreds of thousands of marchers. Their aim was to gather many different oppositional organizations and groups that had for years demanded independence. Now the main aim was to democratize the new state. The nonviolent APF operated in an environment in which there were rival militant and violent groups. It was later divided, and one part of it continued as a party. At the elections in November 2000 and January 2001, the APF won 11.0 percent of the popular vote and 6 out of 125 seats in the Azerbaijan National Assembly.19

Belarus 1991

A broad-based nonviolent civic movement was led by the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF), which was established in 1988 and became a coalition pressing for autonomy and democratic rights. The BPF was both a political party and a cultural movement. Initially its orientation was pro-Western, in particular, pro-Polish and anti-Russian. Membership was open to all Belarusian citizens as well as any democratic organization. The BPF’s goals were democracy and independence through national rebirth and rebuilding The front united cultural groups, workers’ associations, and political movements, but its influence was largely confined to two major cities. Belarus declared independence on July 27, 1990.

On December 8, 1991, the leaders of the Russian (Boris Yeltsin), Ukrainian (Leonid Kravchuk), and Belarusian (Stanislav Shushkevich) republics met in Belarus to issue a declaration that the Soviet Union was dissolved and had been replaced by the Commonwealth of Independent States.20

The BPF is still a part of the opposition in Belarus, and in 1994 it formed a “shadow” cabinet consisting of 100 BPF intellectuals. Its first Prime Minister was Uladzimir Zablocki.



Estonia 1991

By 1988, the bloodless “Singing Revolution” was about to make history: a series of singing mass demonstrations eventually led to one that saw 300,000 Estonians (more than one-fifth of the population) in Tallinn to sing national songs played by rock musicians. And on August 23, 1989, about two million people from Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania stood on the Vilnius-Tallinn road holding hands. The unprecedented living chain measured nearly 600 kilometers.

The many oppositional meetings at the end of the 1980s are described in detail by Ignats in his 1989 book Estland: Den Sjungande Revolutionen. This period was the peak of a movement that got power during glasnost21 and perestroika22 in the Soviet Union under the liberalization led by Gorbachev. The Estonian Communist Party (ECP) lost members as well as credibility, and several networks and organizations filled the vacuum that it left. The Estonian Popular Front was one major part of the new civil society. Created in 1988, it was joined by the dissident Estonian National Independence Party and the Green Party. By 1988, the Estonian Supreme Soviet was transformed into a regional lawmaking body, and soon afterward Estonia achieved economic independence from the Soviet Union and recognition of Estonian as the official language.

A grassroots Estonian Citizens' Committees Movement was launched in 1989, with the objective of registering all prewar citizens of the Republic of Estonia and their descendants in order to convene a Congress. The ECCM’s emphasized the illegal nature of the Soviet system and the fact that hundreds of thousands of inhabitants of Estonia had not ceased to be citizens of the Estonian Republic, which still legally existed and was recognized by the majority of Western nations. Despite the hostility of the mainstream official press and intimidation by Soviet Estonian authorities, dozens of local citizens' committees were elected by popular initiative nationwide. These quickly organized into a coordinated body, and by the beginning of 1990, more than 900,000 persons had registered themselves as citizens of the Republic of Estonia.

Two free elections and two alternative legislatures developed in Estonia in 1990. On February 24, 1990, the 464-member Congress of Estonia (including 35 delegates of refugee communities abroad) was elected by the registered citizens of the republic. The Congress of Estonia convened for the first time in Tallinn on March 11-12, 1990, passing 14 declarations and resolutions.23 This was a democratically elected but informal body without its base in the constitution or any other law. The Congress represented a broad array of civic groups, and functioned as an alternative to the formal structure.

Despite having 50,000 Soviet troops and a large percentage of Russian-speaking Soviet-era immigrants, Estonia managed to gain its independence without the violent incidents that occurred in its sister republics Latvia and Lithuania.

Sweden put a lot of energy into diplomatic efforts to support an independent Estonia and to gain international support for it. When Estonia declared its formal independence on August 20, 1991 a number of Western countries recognized it quickly, and the U.S. and the Soviet Union followed in early September.

Latvia 1991

After the guerilla warfare against the Soviet occupation ended in the late 1950s, all later oppositional work used nonviolent means. Similar to developments in Estonia, liberalization within the communist regime began in the mid-1980s in Latvia. Several mass sociopolitical organizations emerged, including Tautas Fronte,24, Latvijas Nacionālās Neatkarības Kustība,25 and Pilson¸u Kongress.26 The same large-scale singing demonstrations mentioned in the section on Estonia also played a crucial role in Latvia. They were the symbol of a united wish for independence for all Baltic states.

Earlier, in 1986, several small-scale demonstrations were organized by Helsinki-86, a group created in Liepaja in June 1986 that focused on human rights. Soon its agenda expanded to nationalistic views and a demand for independence. The police did their best to prevent these demonstrations from multiplying and growing in size.

Several environmental groups also used massive nonviolence and civil disobedience in 1986. Protests to stop the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Daugava and an environmentally disastrous plan for a Riga metro took place, and activists gained experience with nonviolent means.

In June 1987, a group of Helsinki-86 activists placed flowers at the Freedom Monument in Riga. In August, they protested against the Soviet occupation of Latvia, and on November 18 they publicly and illegally celebrated Latvian Independence Day.

In the first two days of June 1988, the Latvian Writers’ Union publicly revealed and protested the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.27

In January 1991, troops shot at demonstrators at the TV tower in Vilnius. A few days later people began building barricades to protect the Parliament. After a week of high tension, special Soviet troops from the OMON branch28 were ordered to remove the protestors. They killed five and injured 10 others when the protesters surrounded the Interior Ministry building. This event got a lot of attention in the international media. When several Soviet tanks entered the old town, there were some shootings, but the vast majority of the demonstrators remained nonviolent. People built barricades and spent days and nights guarding them while singing Latvian songs. The label “Singing Revolution” took its name from such events.

After a long summer of demonstrations and confrontations, the Popular Front of Latvia and the other movements achieved their main goal: Latvia was recognized as an independent state.



Russia 1991

The collapse of the Soviet Union left Russia the main political power in the region. Inside Russia, the struggle over power escalated in August 1991. A group calling itself the Emergency Committee arrested President Gorbachev on August 19 while he was on vacation. The arrest was covered up by reports that Gorbachev was ill. The coup makers were against perestroika and glasnost, but most of all opposed the process to give the republics independence. A treaty to make them independent in a federation with a common president, foreign policy, and military was to be signed on August 20. The plotters included the vice president, the defense minister, and the head of the KGB. They banned all forms of public demonstrations, protests, and strikes. Orders were given for military units to enter Moscow and protect vital buildings. The men behind the coup expected popular support for their actions, but the majority of the population in the capital turned against them. Many realized that the news about Gorbachev being sick was a ploy. Large crowds came to the “White House” to protest the coup. More people met at other central places in Moscow. Boris Yeltsin became famous when he climbed on a military vehicle and urged people to use civil disobedience against the coup makers. That event was shown on TV and resulted in many more citizens joining the protesters.

Other cities also held large-scale demonstrations, which included the intelligentsia, middle classes, and workers. In Leningrad more than 100,000 protested in Palace Square.

The new leadership realized that it could soon lose control, and ordered troops to prepare for actions against the crowds. On the second day, three people were killed in Manezch Square, which created great anger among the masses. Soldiers started to openly say that they would not shoot at civilians and that they sympathized with them. This was the end of the coup. By late morning August 21, the tanks that had been patrolling the Kremlin had been recalled (Martin and Varney, 2003, pp. 47-48). President Gorbachev returned to Moscow the next day.


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