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NO 119-120

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INFO   :::  Helsinki Charter - PAGE 2 > Helsinki Charter No. 119-120 > Text


Helsinki Charter No. 119-120

May - June 2008


Forty Years Later


By Vladimir Gligorov

"We hugely overestimated ourselves and gave ourselves over to the illusion that in the prosperous Federal Republic of Germany a revolution was imaginable. Seen thus, we were like people possessed, who acted in isolation in a room empty of air. We lived a kind of armed existentialism."

Astrid Proll (member of a faction of the Red Army, RAF, who served long sentence and now works as a photographer)



The 1968 revolt in the East and the West was not caused by the same reasons and did not result in the same consequences. Besides, in Yugoslavia the causes and consequences were not the same everywhere. That year, apart from student protests all over the Western world, Czechoslovakia was invaded and first major demonstrations broke out in Kosovo and, later on, in Macedonia. The war in Vietnam and the divided Europe were the main reasons for mass demonstrations in the West. In East Europe the causes of reforms in Czechoslovakia and intervention by Warsaw Pact forces were not that different from those that periodically chocked reforms and revolts in the socialist world. On the other hand, in Yugoslavia social and national reasons were behind political conflicts in the streets and within the ruling party. The consequences of those developments were in keeping with their motives - it could be said, therefore, that all the goals were achieved, this way or another. My argumentation for this claim is presented in this article.

ONE-DIMENSIONAL PEOPLE: Though the 1968 protests mostly associate non-parliamentary opposition in Germany and student demonstrations in Paris, it all began in the United States of America, primarily with the resistance to the war in Vietnam. The political milieu - if that's a proper term - were civil movements for equal rights and abolishment of racial segregation. Because of the Vietnam War the dissent with domestic policy turns into the dissent with foreign policy, while the demands for equal rights turn into appeals for the end of an unpopular and unnecessary war. Both topics by tradition strong resound in the American public. Though foreign observers might see it as some unique historical event, this is all about something quite typical for America. Demands for equal rights always attract public support, though the whole process may sometimes take time and cause major social and political conflicts. Likewise, anti-war movements are strongly supported as a rule, particularly when a war protracts and costs dear. However, in both cases only social and political movements can effectuate planned results.

Sometimes it is difficult to understand social movements in America if one perceives them as something characteristic of some of ideas of the system that determines them. An interpretation as such was most popular - true, not for long - and was based on Herbert Marcuse's idea about one-dimensionality of an American citizen, which is primarily to be attributed to the character of American capitalism. In a way, the system boils down people to one dimension only - to their consumer mentality. So they become politically and morally insensitive, which actually is in keeping with the nature of the very system.

Such interpretation of the American consumer society has little to do with facts, let alone with the reasons behind civil protests. By far more important was the government's reaction to the protests inspired by equal rights for all and those against the Vietnam War. The government of the consumer society not only failed to apply tolerance as the means of repression - as the above-mentioned theory predicted - but demonstrated aptitude towards the use of force against protesters no matter what their motives for protesting have been. The protests, therefore, spread and culminated in 1968.

Were the goals of the protests achieved? Yes, they were. Those were the years that witnessed breakthroughs in equal rights and, despite the fact that racism was not uprooted, things have again been the same between America's white and black populations. Also, though the Vietnam War took another couple of years to end, the 1968 elections showed that withdrawal of American troops was the only possible outcome of that war. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger's administration would not accept it. But eventually the United States President was forced to resign and it was only his successor's amnesty that saved his neck from criminal accountability.

Reading commentaries of participants in those events in America today one has the impression that some of them wanted more. Of course, if they wanted to change the system and, in keeping with that, to change the nature of one-dimensional man, they failed mostly because the nature of that system was wrongly determined, while an American citizen, like any other citizen, could not have been one-dimensional. But those were not the objectives of American protests in 1968.

"SOCIETY IS A PLASTIC FLOWER: "Protests in most West European countries were partially provoked by the Vietnam war, though by far more by the unnatural partition of Europe. In Germany, people also protested against the parliamentary system that was not serving the interests of citizens. Indeed, non-parliamentary opposition was quite a new phenomenon that significantly mobilized people to oppose the existing parties in a democratic country. Protesters believed in the possibility of a revolution, that is in the possibility to attain more than the booming German industry offered. They believed in the possibility to attain more in the domain of coexistence with Eastern Germany and the entire socialist world. German students hardly had any sympathies for totalitarian socialism but were obviously convinced that German democracy lacked legitimacy, let alone the legitimacy of German capitalism as interpreted by Jirgen Habermas, who did not sympathize with students in protest.

Were the goals of the non-parliamentary opposition and student protest attained in Germany? Well, that all depends on how one defines those goals. Germany, that's for sure, became more dedicated to the "Eastern policy"of coexistence with socialist countries. It's hard to say to what extent this contributed to Germany's unification. On the other hand, there is no doubt that German social-democracy, significantly boosted after 1968, did much for bridging divides between the two parts of the divided Germany. And it did much for Europe's unification in general. There is also no doubt that the social character of the German state has been maintained despite the fact that one can hardly claim it has ever been jeopardized at all. Finally, the anti-Nazi character of a new Germany was strengthened, which was among the goals of the student protests. However, the goals of extreme groups were not achieved. The protests did not bring about a revolution.

In France protests were different as they were, to some extent at least, against social conservativism. Though in France, the same as in the United States, direct consequences of protests were enthronements of conservative presidents, political consequences were in keeping with demonstrators' demands. Unlike Germany where some outstanding protesters joined a faction of the Red Army engaged in terrorism, France had more ideologists of the protest, who replaced their leftist convictions with rightist. Eventually, Jean Paul Sartre was almost the only one distributing handouts that called for a revolution. Be it as it may, it can be said that student protests in 1968 significantly influenced liberalization of the French society one could hardly call "a plastic flower"since.

RESISTANCE THROUGH SELF-IMMOLITION: Seemingly quite dissonant with the developments in the West, resistance to communist regime took place in Czechoslovakia. Whereas the American President practically resigned in 1968 and the French President left the office after the failed referendum of support, Russian troops and those of their allies from the Warsaw Pact entered Czechoslovakia. Many think that invasion against Czechoslovakia more contributed to stabilization of political regimes in the West than those regimes' political reforms, which were far from being insignificant. The Czech response was a form of non-violent resistance the benchmark of which is Jan Palach's self-immolation in Wenceslas Square in Prague.

No need to further elaborate the Czech case since many studies have been dealing with it. At that time only members of the Soviet Politburo must have seen it all from a different perspective - any other observer of Czech developments must have realized that the regime and the entire socialist system had no future at all. It only took time for everything to crumble down. Differences between Prague and Bratislava were also noticeable at the time. And Czechs' readiness to peaceful resistance indicated that the state - turned into federation under soviet occupation - could not sustain and the Czechs would not oppose a possible separation even though they might not favor it.

Were the goals of the Czech spring attained? The answer is definitely affirmative. Dissatisfied were only those who truly believed in socialism with a human face but that was not, after all, the real objective of the resistance. People wanted to get out of the cage and in that they succeeded.

SOCIAL AND NATIONAL JUSTICE: Developments in Yugoslavia were not exactly effectuated by or similar to the protests in the West and reforms in the East. Like in other countries, domestic politics or, more specifically, Yugoslav politics, played a crucial role. Therefore, the character of the events in Belgrade, Zagreb or Prishtina was not the same.

The Belgrade protest was primarily motivated by social issues. Some authors say that student protests marked the end to economic reform, which is only partially true. Economic reform did not suit the movements that were nationalistic in the first place - those Zagreb and Prishtina. But speaking of Belgrade only, there is no doubt that the protest was significantly motivated by the widespread opinion that a social gap was becoming wider and wider. This becomes evident when one analyses developments before the protest broke out. A rigid perception of social justice was more and more popular. At that time significant changes were made in the economy and social structure preparing the terrain for key, system changes. Most people believed that party leaders were becoming rich by opening the door to capitalism. Therefore, a combination of popular democracy and real socialism was the topic of advocacy.

This is quite evident from the documents produced at the time. Initial student demands - read aloud from the balcony of the Student Home in New Belgrade in the afternoon of the first day of the protest - were mostly of democratic character. The demands that were later on formulated in a longer and definite document were mostly of social nature and based on criticism of the party bureaucratization. Politically, this final document asked for a compromise with the League of Communists - and the compromise was reached since Josip Broz went live on air and supported student demands.

Were those demands fulfilled? The answer is affirmative. Some participants in the protest nowadays tend to negate this concord between student demands and the policy the party leadership pursued later on. One could discuss whether or not the finally formulated demands were really in keeping with initial motivation of the protest but one could hardly claim that the party leadership, once consolidated after the removal of more liberal leaders of the League of Communists of Serbia, disapproved student demands. Persecution of the leaders of the protest was in the very nature of the system rather than a consequence of ideological disagreements.

The situation was quite different in Zagreb. Nationalistic movement, notably among students, was stronger over there. Left-wing students were somewhat successful in 1968 demonstrations but their success was short-lived. The Croatian party leadership was closer to students' nationalistic movement and sided with it in the showdown that took place about a year later. The nationalistic movement was anti-capitalist at the same time - for, the prevalent belief was that economic liberalization favored Serbian economy above all. So there was an interesting clash in Zagreb between those taking that economic reform opened the door to "provincial counter-revolution" and those believing that the reforms were aimed at exploiting Croatia since they were not "settling accounts."

Were the goals of the Croatian student movement, the nationalistic one, achieved? The answer is definitely affirmative. It should also be said that nationalism was embedded in the Yugoslav political system - therefore, neither Croatian demands nor those coming from Belgrade were not contrary to the official ideology. However, it should also be said that more liberal party officials in Croatia were removed and that persecution of Croatian nationalists was by far more severe than that in Belgrade, as well noted by Vlado Gotovac. Nationalists from both sides - those who have survived in power - were eventually in the position to realize their ideas.

The most significant warning probably came from Prishtina. In Kosovo - and later on in Macedonia - student demonstrations were labeled counter-revolutionary and chocked by force. To make a long story short one should only indicate that the objects of those demonstrations were considerable attained. Some actors may not see it this way - since some propagated the regime of Enver Hoxha - but aspirations of more realistic participants such as Ibrahim Rugova have become almost the reality today.

A LOOK BACK: 1968 was much discussed this year marking the 40th anniversary. As far as I know, significant debates about those developments have not taken place. Direct participants were expressing different views, mostly from a historical distance and trying to be objective inasmuch as possible. Several conferences were organized in Belgrade on the occasion. The perception I tried to elaborate in this article differs from the views expressed at those conferences judging by the media that covered them.


NO 119-120

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