Three Mistakes From 1989

Three major challenges we are facing in 2020 – a worsening conflict in Afghanistan; an aggressive Chinese Communist Party; and an irredentist Kremlin – have their roots in major decisions taken in 1989.

by Nov 12, 2020

The fall of the Berlin Wall, 1989.

1989 is rightly celebrated as a year that changed the world – one of those key watersheds in history. Communism (outside China) ended. European integration accelerated. Governments reformed. Markets opened. Many of our most comforting assumptions about the potential of a globalized world can be traced to the events of that pivotal year.

Powerful new trends had been unleashed: peace and democracy were on a dramatic upswing. According to one dataset, the number of deaths in civil and inter-state conflicts peaked in 1990 and declined continuously over the next two decades.  According to the Pew Research Center, “of the 75 countries rated as autocracies in 1987, only 15 (20%) were still rated that way three decades later,” with 1989 a crucial tipping point. Nominal gross world product, as measured by the World Bank, rose from about $20 trillion in 1989 to $87 trillion in 2019.

By 1989, the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union and the physical Berlin Wall, all formally dismantled only in 1991, had effectively ceased to exist. Tumultuous events were sweeping the world – from decisions to reunite Germany, to the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, to the election of a government in South Africa that began to dismantle apartheid. Yet the year of democratic political revolutions was also a year of missed opportunities. Three major challenges we are facing in 2020 – a worsening conflict in Afghanistan; an aggressive Chinese Communist Party; and an irredentist Kremlin – have their roots in major decisions taken in 1989. Here, in a nutshell, are these stories:

After a decade of heavy military losses, Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union decided to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan. The Geneva Accords – three bilateral agreements between Afghanistan and Pakistan plus a ‘declaration on international guarantees’ by the United States and the USSR – were signed on April 14th, 1988. Withdrawal of Soviet military forces began on May 15th and was completed ten months later, on February 15th, 1989, when Colonel-General Boris Gromov, commander of the Soviet 40th army, crossed the Amu Darya river.

The Geneva Accords barred Pakistan and Afghanistan from “armed intervention, subversion, military occupation or any other form of intervention and interference, overt or covert,” including destabilization in any form or support for secessionists, mercenaries, terrorists or other armed groups against the other.  But the United States (not a party in this agreement) was intent after 1985 on maintaining military support for the armed Afghan mujahidin opposition even after Soviet forces withdrew. The Soviet Union, for its part, had by 1988 made a matching commitment to Kabul’s Najibullah regime. On April 14th, 1988 George Schultz made the following extraordinary public statement:

The obligations undertaken by the guarantors are symmetrical. In this regard, the United States has advised the Soviet Union that it retains the right, consistent with its obligations as guarantor, to provide military assistance to parties in Afghanistan.

In other words, the Geneva Accords prohibited Afghanistan and Pakistan from engaging in any form of military interference or destabilization on the territory of the other state. But the United States and the Soviet Union reserved to themselves the right “to provide military assistance to parties in Afghanistan.” This doctrine, known as “positive symmetry,” was in fact adopted at the behest of Pakistani President Zia Ul Haq, who was firmly committed to seeing a pro-Pakistani government installed in Kabul and able to mobilize a substantial level of support for this goal in the U.S. Congress. It was adopted against Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze’s stated preference for “negative symmetry,” which would have required both Moscow and Washington to end support for military proxies in Afghanistan.

In the event, the United States continued substantial support for mujahidin groups up to 1992, when the Najibullah government lost its large financial subsidy from Moscow, which was then in the throes of hyper-inflation and post-Soviet political chaos. But in the brutal civil war that erupted for control of Kabul and its government, Pakistan’s military eagerly took up the mantle of “positive symmetry” – in flagrant violation of its obligations under the Geneva Accords.  Najibullah himself was murdered in Kabul in 1996 by fighters acting on Islamabad’s orders. Even after the end of the Afghan civil war (1992-96), this continuous and even growing covert Pakistani military assistance went on to benefit the Taliban regime (1996-2001) and the armed opposition to the Karzai and Ghani governments (2001 to present).

The result has been an escalating proxy war. After the Geneva Accords, Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, reinforcing a political dynamic that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But “positive symmetry” gave Pakistan a pretext for continuing its war in Afghanistan, including via escalating forms of extremism and terrorism. Even today, Pakistan’s military and ISI (as well as, on a much smaller scale, Iran) see “positive symmetry” as a political warrant for continuing military support to terrorist and other armed proxies operating in Afghanistan – classic spoiler behaviour that so-called peace talks starting in 2008 have utterly failed to address. Far from bringing peace, “positive symmetry” has been a recipe for three more decades of war. Unless and until Pakistan faces harsh penalties for its continuing proxy war in Afghanistan, this conflict will continue, and the vast potential of peace in Central and South Asia will go unrealized.

Over a three-year period from 1989 to 1992, fifteen new independent states achieved international recognition; nearly two dozen more swept aside repressive regimes. By the mid-1990s only five – the People’s Republic of China, Laos, Vietnam, Cuba and North Korea – retained the communist label. The stage seemed to be set for political freedoms and the rule of law to become growing realities for every major society.

But this was not to be. The death of former Chinese communist party secretary Hu Yaobang on April 15th, 1989 – one year after the Geneva Accords – ignited student protests that quickly grew into a mass movement. Hu, a key architect of market reforms, had been purged in 1987; students feared the opportunity for further liberalization would be lost. Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to Beijing from May 15th to 18th, 1989 gave fresh oxygen to the Chinese democracy movement, in inspiring hopes that China would follow the path of perestroika and glasnost’ by matching recent economic reforms with political transformation.

These hopes were dashed by the imposition of martial law and ensuing violent repression of student and democratic movements, including the Tiananmen massacre of June 4th, 1989. Democratic governments, far from taking a strong stand, were muted in their response to this crushing of China’s democratic activists. Business resumed, driven by new commercial interests. The commitments to representative institutions, political freedoms, human rights and the rule of law so patiently enforced across Europe were quietly dropped in dealings with China.

Just twelve years later, China acceded to the World Trade Organization. By 2020 it was the dominant player in global merchandise trade – while continuing to deny freedom of speech, fair trials or organized political opposition in any form. On the contrary, China is today the principal partner and ally of a growing range of autocrats and dictators around the world, while continuing to blunt any and all criticism of its political system through extensive world-wide networks of corruption, digital surveillance and violent repression, up to and including a policy of genocide against major minorities such as the Uighurs.

In early April 1989, an anti-Soviet rally held in Tbilisi, capital of Georgia, was violently repressed; on April 9th, twenty-one were killed with hundreds injured. On August 31st, 1989, the Supreme Soviet of the Moldavian SSR adopted Moldovan as the only official language, triggering a backlash among Russian-speakers living in a narrow strip of territory on the left bank of the Dniester river, where ethnic Moldovans were a minority; the next year these Russian speakers declared an independent republic. On November 10th, 1989 – the day after the fall of the Berlin wall – the regional council of the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast, a constituent part of Georgia, had declared itself an autonomous republic. Within two years breakaway republics in Azerbaijan (Artsakh or Nagorno Karabakh), Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) and Moldova (Transdnistria) were receiving active support from Moscow.

Under Vladimir Putin, Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, subsequently recognizing both Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. Five other member states of the United Nations – all with strong historical links to Russia – have followed suit. Artsakh and Nagorno Karabakh have received no recognition from any UN member state, but these four ‘breakaway republics’ have recognized one another. In 2014 Russia invaded and occupied Crimea and Donbass in Ukraine, subsequently declaring Crimea and Sevastopol to be part its territory – an illegal move that only ten of the 193 member states of the UN have even partially recognized. With its military occupation of parts of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, Putin’s Russia has become the world’s leading practitioner of irredentism and illegal occupation of territory belonging to neighbouring states – forms of aggression the world had hoped to end for good with the peace settlement of 1945 and the democratic transitions of 1989.

Today covert proxy wars are a reality in Kashmir and Afghanistan thanks to Pakistan’s ISI, while other states – from Iran and Saudi Arabia to Turkey, UAE and Qatar – are also engaged in proxy wars to varying degrees in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya and other states. The Chinese Communist Party has rolled back democracy in Hong Kong, repressed religious minorities, sought to erase the cultural heritage of Tibet and Mongolia, and perpetrated a genocide against Uighurs in Xinjiang, while sabre-rattling in the South China Sea, moth-balling nascent judicial institutions and launching a global surveillance state. In Moldova, Georgia, Ukraine and Armenia, Russia has resumed its historic role as an invader prepared to change borders and suborn neighbours by force. The hopes and dreams of 1989 seem to be a receding shore.

Yet the costs of these policies are now being counted. Pakistan’s economy has stagnated, while India is advancing. China’s once formidable GDP and export growth rates are declining. Russia’s economy has been moribund for more than a decade. Proxy war, communism and irredentist aggression may prolong the shelf-life of strongmen and dictators – while costing citizens their well-being, basic rights and peace of mind. But in the end, war is bad for business; over the long-term, it is fatal to prosperity.

By continuing aggression against domestic and neighbouring populations, China, Russia, Pakistan, Iran and other states are under-cutting their own prospects. As postwar history has shown, a steady diet of nationalism and suppression of dissent makes the autocrat’s hold on power brittle. When the winds of free expression and democratic change blow again, as they did in 1989, the world’s tyrants will pay a price. In the meantime, there is much to learn from these three mistakes made over three decades ago, which allowed proxy wars, irredentist invasion and communist misrule to make an undeserved, and we hope brief, return to the stage of history.


<style><!-- [et_pb_line_break_holder] -->#articlecontent a{<!-- [et_pb_line_break_holder] --> color: #8a1f03; text-decoration: underline;<!-- [et_pb_line_break_holder] -->}<!-- [et_pb_line_break_holder] --></style>


Chris Alexander has served as a Canadian diplomat for over eighteen years, working in the Canadian embassy in Moscow under Yeltsin and Putin.  He was the MP for Ajax-Pickering from 2011 to 2015, serving as Parliamentary Secretary for National Defence and Canada’s Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. In the latter capacity, he was responsible for introducing Express Entry, updating the Citizenship Act for the first time in a generation, making the first commitment by any country to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees, and sustaining the then highest levels of immigration in Canadian history. He has been named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and one of Canada’s Top Forty Under Forty.