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Review of Book: James Mark, Bogdan C. Iacob, Tobias Rupprecht and Ljubica Spaskovska. 1989: A Global History of Eastern Europe, Southeastern Europe, 45(2), 262-264.

  • Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski" and Centre for Liberal Strategies
Book Reviews
James Mark, Bogdan C. Iacob, Tobias Rupprecht and Ljubica Spaskovska. 1989:
A Global History of Eastern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019),
 1108427006 and 978-1108427005.
Drawing on a mastery of diverse elds, historians James Mark, Bogdan C. Iacob,
Tobias Rupprecht, and Ljubica Spaskovska from the University of Exeter, UK,
have produced a comprehensive, original, and well-researched monograph
on an overexploited topic: 1989. Published on the thirtieth anniversary of this
dramatic year, it paints a broad, yet rich in detail and insights picture of the
history of 1989, adding valuable knowledge to our understanding of the global
processes and wider implications of the events heralding the abrupt end of the
Cold War.
The collapse of the liberal consensus thirty years on has left little celebra-
tory spirit in commemorating a date once thought to have precipitated “the
end of history”. Noting that “the collapse of a consensus is a fortuitous moment
for historians” (p. 5), the authors take the opportunity to break with the “dom-
inant liberal narrative, which downplayed the particularity of the historical
conjuncture that had enabled the revolutions of 1989” (p. 3) and presented
Eastern Europe as “naturally converging on a form of Western liberalism”
(ibid.). Instead, they ask new questions, presenting a refreshingly unorthodox,
at times provocative “global history of 1989”.
In their version 1989 is just an episode of “a long transition” (p. 10), unfold-
ing against a backdrop of complex global and regional processes—which may
well have turned out diferently than in the said “inevitable convergence” on
free market liberal democracy. The current climate of nativist populist revolt
against the political, socio-economic, and cultural outcomes of the post-
socialist transition provides the political context and lends credence to
authors’ claim that strong political undercurrents—authoritarian, populist,
radical right/left—foreclosed by the swift triumph of the liberal script came
back to haunt post-socialist countries two decades later.
In telling a multifaceted story of 1989, the authors challenge several further
myths. Maybe the most persistent is that of the region receiving ready-made
models from the West to passively emulate. The story recovers the agency of the
region and, against the received wisdom, nds the agents of transition not pri-
marily in the dissidents, but in the emerging networks of what would become
the “transition elite”, comprised also of members of socialist-era elites—tech-
nocrats, reform-minded communist functionaries, economists, lawyers, etc.
From the mid-70s onwards these elites started looking for models of trans-
forming socialism and often found them not in the West but in Latin America
and East Asia. Thus, instead of opening up to the world with a bang at the
©  , , |:./-
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fall of the Berlin Wall, some socialist countries had been gradually integrating
into the global markets and had been becoming—to diferent degrees—par-
ticipants in “processes of realignment towards the norms of global capitalism,
liberal democracy, and European culture that would accelerate in 1989” (p. 12).
Challenging the lack-of-agency myth, and addressing the puzzle of why,
given the plethora of paths for transformation in 1989 (populist, authoritarian,
radical socialist, etc.), it was Western liberal capitalism that was chosen as the
model to follow, the authors especially look into the role of reform-minded
economists from the region (chapter 1). Rather than just providing a laboratory
for Western economists to test neo-liberal policies, in restructuring the social-
ist economies these economists were “often more radical in their prescriptions
and were ignoring pleas for restraint from Western-dominated institutions”
(p. 15). The old story of “the West to the rest” is challenged and the role of the
region’s elites in promoting and imposing the same model on the less eager
Global South is pointed out.
The “global reverberations” of 1989—including in the Global South—are
further explored in chapter 5, which signicantly contributes to our knowl-
edge. Of particular note for readers interested in Southeastern Europe’s
political history is chapter 4 (on self-determination), trying to explain “why
was Yugoslavia diferent from Eastern Europe and similar to [other locations
subject to] religious and ethnic violence in the Global South?” (p. 197). The
authors identify the origins of the ethnic violence of the 1990s “in a particu-
lar understanding of the right to national or ethnic self-determination in
Yugoslavia’s nal two decades” (p. 199). Decentralisation and devolution of
power in the 1974 Yugoslav Constitution to constituent republics, claiming
greater autonomy as nations dened by ethnic belonging, weakened federal
decision-making and gave more power to inward-looking nationalist elites,
accelerating the centrifugal forces (p. 201).
There are several less compelling argumentative lines in the book, how-
ever. It starts of with the claim that solidaristic socialist internationalism,
characterising the postcolonial Global South–socialist countries relationship,
started giving way from the mid-70s to technocrat-led marketisation and grad-
ual integration with globalised capitalism. The factual story may be correct,
yet its evaluative coloring—shift from solidaristic internationalism towards
prot-driven globalism—seems ideologically driven and does not ring true
to the Cold War realities where the alleged solidarity with the Global South
could be interpreted as a hastily crafted mask for the imperial ambitions of
the .
A second not fully compelling line is developed in the chapter on
Europeanisation (chapter 3). It depicts the Helsinki process as leading to a
   () -
Book Reviews
re-bordered, insensitive to the post-colonial grievances of the Global South,
increasingly self-centered Europe, which after 1989 would move in the direc-
tion of “Fortress Europe”. Even though this line is left somewhat open-ended
(subsection titles end with question marks), it tells the story of both social-
ist elites and oppositions championing “through the Helsinki Process a high
European civilization that was dened in opposition to Africa in the South and
the Islamic world in the East” (p. 19). To give substance to the above claim, the
story of the expulsion of Bulgarian Turks by the communist regime in Bulgaria
in 1989 is briey mentioned, yet this case in fact directly contradicts it. Not
only was the Helsinki process never used by the government to justify their
actions, but in fact the only ones to oppose them were human rights activists,
who explicitly relied on the Helsinki accords to condemn the actions of the
Bulgarian state and expose them to the international community. Portraying
“the rhetoric of a ‘return to Europe’” employed by the transition elites of
Central Europe as implicitly invoking a racialised vision of bordered Europe
(p. 144) that would ultimately lead to the “Fortress Europe” rhetoric of nativist
populists—and presenting this temporal sequence as somehow intrinsically
owing from the Helsinki process—comes close to attributing a teleological
character to highly contingent historic events. Such an inference comes as a
surprise, given that the authors themselves rightly object to attributing inevi-
tability to events that are “historically contingent assemblages” (p.5).
A short review cannot do justice to this rich, thought-provoking account of
1989. Without doubt, the monograph will spark academic discussions and will
open new avenues for research on this hotly debated period. It thus will be on
the recommended list for any scholar interested in the history of the region, its
global context, and its ongoing reverberations.
Ruzha Smilova
Political Science Department, Soa University “St. Kliment Ohridski”,
Soa, Bulgaria
   () -
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