In 1989, the wall separating East and West Berlin came down, symbolizing the demise of communism, which had controlled much of Europe for more than 40 years. The speed of communism's collapse in the Soviet Union surprised everyone, from analysts to Soviet rulers. The communist governments of Eastern Europe gave way to free-market economies and multi-party political systems, and Communist parties in Western Europe lost members and influence. Many former communist countries are now members of NATO and the European Union, but some have realized that a capitalist democracy can be difficult to sustain.

Western Europe

Communists formed parties in most countries from the earliest days of the movement. They had little influence in Western Europe except in France, Finland, Greece and Cyprus. Since the fall of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, party membership in Western Europe has declined. However, some liberal party platforms now include social, labor and environmental principles borrowed from defunct communist parties.

Poland

The speed of Poland’s break with Soviet communism stunned the government. But the rise of the democratic-leaning Solidarity labor movement took years to come to fruition, and it suffered severe repression under the communist government's martial law declaration, which lasted from 1981 to 1983. But after the Communist Party lost the elections of 1989, political institutions were reinstated and traditional industries arose, bringing much-needed import capital. Companies that had been nationalized became strong components of a growing economy.

Hungary

The relative peacefulness of communism’s downfall in Hungary in 1989 stood in stark contrast to the brutal suppression of the 1956 uprising against Soviet rule. During that revolution, Soviet tanks and artillery rolled into Budapest, killing thousands. Hungary has made a successful transition to a market economy, but has seen periodic economic downturns, like most of Europe, and has had to borrow from the International Monetary Fund. Hungary's government is a parliamentary democracy with elections and executive, legislative and judicial branches. However, as of 2013, many accused the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban of attempting to consolidate its power and defang the media, the New York Times reported in March that year.

The Czech Republic and Slovakia

The break with communism in the former Czechoslovakia, called the “Velvet Revolution” because of its peaceful and inclusive nature, began with demonstrations in 1989. The Communist Party lost the election and non-Communist leaders formed a new government. Voters elected Vaclav Havel president. A playwright and activist, Havel included some former Communist leaders in his government. The country peacefully separated into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993. Both republics' market-driven economies are in line with the rest of Europe and their governments are stable parliamentary democracies.

The Balkans

The Czech Republic’s peaceful transition was a world apart from the bloody revolutions and vicious xenophobia in Bulgaria, Albania, Romania and the former Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia split into Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. The fragmentation of these states gave rise to the term “Balkanization.” Ethnic unrest, organized crime, civil discord and weak economies continue to plague these republics even though some are members of NATO and the EU.