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1989 and the Arab World

3 February 2011

1989 and the Arab World

 By Gwynne Dyer

It was the Egyptian army’s statement that brought it all back: “To the great people of Egypt, your armed forces, acknowledging the legitimate rights of the people … have not and will not use force against the Egyptian people.” In other words, go ahead and overthrow President Hosni Mubarak. It’s all right with us.

It reminded me of the day of the first big anti-Communist demonstration in Moscow in mid-1989. There had already been non-violent demos in other Communist-ruled countries like Poland and Hungary, but this was Russia. The enormous crowd filling the broad Garden Ring Road was visibly nervous, and I was staying near the edge of the crowd so I could dodge into a doorway if the shooting started.

Then I noticed that there were Soviet army officers, in full uniform, among the protesters. It was going to be all right: the military wanted change just as much as everybody else. Tahrir Square in Cairo today is the same: the army is with the people.

The army statement in Cairo rang the death knell for Mubarak’s regime, even if he still insists that he will stay in the presidential palace until the election scheduled for September. That won’t happen. A transitional government led by other people will organise the election. But the echoes of an earlier revolution set me to wondering: is this the Arab world’s 1989?

In 1989 the collapse of the old order started in the “satellite”countries, not in the Russian heart of the empire, just as the current revolt against the Arab status quo began in Tunisia, a relatively small and marginal Arab country. The Eastern European landslide only started to sweep everything before it in November, 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall. So is Hosni Mubarak the Berlin Wall of the Arab world?

He certainly could be, for Egypt is the most populous Arab country, and the tactics and goals of the Tunisian and Egyptian peoples closely resemble those of the peaceful revolutionaries of Eastern Europe in 1989. The Arabs, too, are successfully using non-violent tactics to bring irresistible moral pressure on tyrannical and corrupt regimes, and they are demanding just the same things: democracy, justice and prosperity.

The non-violent formula worked in two to three weeks in Tunisia, and it looks like it will take about the same time in Egypt. At first the president is defiant and sends police thugs out into the streets to attack the protesters, but he cannot use massive violence because he knows that the army would not obey a shoot-to-kill order. Much like in Eastern Europe in 1989.

Then begins the retreat. First the president promises reforms. Then, when that doesn’t work, he fires the entire government and creates a new cabinet (but it’s still full of hated regime cronies). Then he promises to leave power at the next election, but argues that he must stay for the transition period to guarantee “stability.” And finally, he gets on the plane and leaves.

Tunisia has travelled that entire route since mid-December, and Egypt is passing through the next-to-last stage. Other Arab countries may be on the same road: the demos began in Algeria and Yemen in December. They’re only three weeks old in Jordan, but the king has just fired the entire government and appointed a new cabinet with orders to carry out “true political reforms.”

There are hold-outs like Syria, whose president, Bashar Assad, boasted last week that his regime is secure because it has a “cause”: confrontation with Israel. More to the point, the Syrian army probably would open fire on protesters, for it is dominated by the ethnic minority to which Assad himself belongs.

Iraq is so paralysed by ethnic divisions after the American occupation that no popular mass movement is possible. Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states almost certainly face no risk of popular revolution, for their people enjoy great prosperity because of their oil. Nevertheless, the pressure for change is palpable in most Arab countries.

Fully half the population of the Arab world might be living under different, more democratic regimes a year or two from now. The European 1989 delivered precisely that in just two years; why can’t the Arabs do the same?

They can, of course, but the period after 1989 in Eastern Europe was not entirely happy. The immediate result, in most countries, was a fall in living standards, not a rise. One major country, former Yugoslavia, was torn apart by war. There were various smaller wars along the ethnically fractured southern borders of the former Soviet Union, and Russia ended up back under a gentler sort of authoritarian rule.

The risks for the Arab world are comparable: short-term economic decline, civil war, and the rise of new authoritarian regimes, probably fuelled by Islamist ideas. Nothing’s perfect. But what we are now witnessing in Tunisia and Egypt, and may also see elsewhere, is a great liberation not just from dictatorship, but from decades of corruption and despair. That’s worth a lot.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“There are…countries”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

Calling the BMD Bluff

8 June 2007

Calling the BMD Bluff

By Gwynne Dyer

Vladimir Putin is definitely a player, and the proposal that the Russian president sprang on George W. Bush at the G8 meeting in Germany on Thursday was a classic political ambush. You claim to be putting interceptor missiles and X-band radars into Eastern Europe to intercept nuclear-tipped, long-range missiles coming out of Iran, said Putin to Bush. So why don’t you make our radar station in Azerbaijan, which overlooks all of Iran from its perch high in the Caucasus mountains, part of the system?

The Bush administration has no intention of letting Russia share in its beloved Ballistic Missile Defence system (aka “Son of Star Wars”), nor does Russia believe that the system is either necessary or functional, but Putin’s negotiating ploy was brilliant. If Iran had either nuclear weapons or long-range ballistic missiles (which it doesn’t), and if the United States had the technological capability to intercept such missiles (which it doesn’t), then access to a Russian radar station in the mountains north of Iran would be exactly what Washington wanted.

“Let’s let our experts have a look at it,” said President Bush about Putin’s “interesting proposal,” and that’s the last that anybody will hear about that, but it did give Putin the opportunity to show that the new US bases in Eastern Europe are not about what Washington says they are about. So what ARE they about?

That is a lot harder to answer, because the whole BMD boondoggle is a weapons system in search of a threat. Twenty-five years ago, when the Blessed Ronald Reagan first proposed the “Star Wars” system, it was going to shoot down thousands of Soviet warheads with directed energy beams, just like in the movies. Very cool. But now there is no Soviet Union, and the only BMD technology that actually exists is clunky missiles that occasionally manage to shoot down other missiles, but mostly miss or just don’t launch.

Time to move on, you might think, but Reagan is a Republican saint, and George W. Bush had promised to roll out some BMD system when he became president. Besides, there are several hundred thousand jobs in the US military and defence industry that depend directly or indirectly on BMD. So the system was unstoppable, even if it didn’t work, and in 2002 the Bush administration tore up the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty in order to be free to deploy it.

The next question was where to put it. The first choices were Alaska and California, in order to intercept the intercontinental ballistic missiles that North Korea doesn’t have. Next on the agenda, obviously, was stopping the non-existent Iranian missiles, which required US radars and interceptor missile bases in Eastern Europe. The Polish and Czech governments eagerly volunteered to host them, not because they believe in a threat from Iran (they don’t), but because they don’t like Russia and badly want American bases of some sort on their soil.

Interestingly, a majority of Poles and over two-thirds of Czechs don’t want the American bases, perhaps because they realise that the bases will just annoy the Russians without providing any real protection. But if all this is just meaningless military nonsense serving a domestic American political agenda, why does it annoy the Russians at all?

It actually isn’t the dysfunctional American missiles that may be installed in Eastern Europe to stop a non-existent Iranian threat that annoy the Russians. They are just a useful stick to beat the Americans with. It’s everything else that the United States and Nato have done to the Russians over the past ten years.

Shortly after he came into office, Putin asked to join Nato. The Cold War was supposedly over, but Russia’s request was rejected out of hand. Instead Nato took in new members all across Eastern Europe — and even on the territory of the former Soviet Union, in the case of the Baltic Republics. After the Cold War, Nato promised not to build new military installations in former Warsaw Pact territory, but the new bases are there in Romania and Bulgaria, and now more are planned in Poland and the Czech Republic.

In a word, arrogance. The Russians don’t count any more, so we don’t need to take their interests into account any more, or even consult with them.

Which is why, in Munich last February, Putin talked bluntly about the old days when “there was an equilibrium and a fear of mutual destruction. In those days one party was afraid to make an extra step without consulting the others. This was certainly a fragile peace and a frightening one, but seen from today it seems reliable enough. Today it seems that peace is not so reliable.”

In Moscow last week, just before Putin left for the G8 meeting, a journalist asked him: “Why are the Americans so obstinate about putting these plans for (ballistic missile defences) into practice, if it is so clear that they are unnecessary?”

Putin replied: “Possibly this is to push us to (retaliate in ways that would prevent) further closeness of Russia and Europe….I cannot exclude this possibility.” As if US foreign policy under President Bush has ever been that subtle and sophisticated. It’s a good thing that both Putin and Bush are leaving office soon.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 10 and 11. (“Interestingly…at all”; and “In a word…reliable”)