A2 Unit 3 IR 1945-2004: (16) The impact of Gorbachev and the collapse of communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe

Source: US State Dept. History archive

Youtube documentary: ‘The wall comes down’ 1989

The March 1985 appointment of Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union provided Reagan with a viable negotiating partner. A series of summits and high-profile encounters followed. At Reykjavik in October 1986, Reagan and Gorbachev discussed the prospect of abolishing all nuclear weapons. In December 1987 they signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated an entire class of missiles. In May 1988, standing in the middle of Red Square in Moscow, Reagan declared that the term “evil empire” belonged to “another era.”

Fearful that Reagan had moved too quickly to accept Gorbachev’s good intentions and the feasibility of his economic and political agenda (“Perestroika” and “Glasnost”), President George H.W. Bush ordered a strategic review to reassess U.S. objectives toward the Soviet Union in the first months of 1989. Simultaneously, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Brent Scowcroft reiterated that the Cold War was not over, and Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney publicly stated that Gorbachev’s reforms were destined to fail.

These statements aggravated Gorbachev, yet the pause did not derail the constructive relationship between Washington and Moscow. Gorbachev accommodated as revolutions occurred in Central and Eastern Europe that fall. After Bush met with his Soviet counterpart off the coast of Malta in December 1989, one month after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev’s spokesman declared, “We buried the Cold War at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.” In the months that followed, Bush worked with the Soviet leader to allow for the peaceful reunification of Germany within NATO, to sign the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), and to enable the transition to democratically-elected governments in countries emerging from Communist rule.

The starkest example of the improvement in U.S.-Soviet relations came after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in August 1990. The Iraqi regime had previously been a Soviet client and Gorbachev vigorously opposed the use of force to turn back Saddam; yet Gorbachev did not stand in Washington’s way. Secretary of State James Baker, who had been Reagan’s chief of staff in 1981, recalled the fall of 1990 as “the world turned upside down.”

As Gorbachev’s economic reforms foundered and his political base crumbled in 1991, the Bush administration increasingly engaged Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin turned back a coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, but in subsequent months consolidated authority over political and military institutions, and increasingly supported Russian independence and dissolution of the Soviet Union. On the evening of December 25, after speaking to Gorbachev on the telephone, Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office to announce that the Soviet Union had ceased to exist.

Fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, 1989

On November 9, 1989, thousands of jubilant Germans brought down the most visible symbol of division at the heart of Europe—the Berlin Wall. For two generations, the Wall was the physical representation of the Iron Curtain, and East German border guards had standing shoot-to-kill orders against those who tried to escape. But just as the Wall had come to represent the division of Europe, its fall came to represent the end of the Cold War. In the White House, President George H. W. Bush and his National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, watched the unfolding scene on a television in the study, aware of both the historical significance of the moment and of the challenges for U.S. foreign policy that lay ahead.

Germans celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 10, 1989. (AP Photo/File)Germans celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 10, 1989. (AP Photo/File)

Not even the most optimistic observer of President’s Ronald Reagan’s 1987 Berlin speech calling on Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” would have imagined that two years later the communist regimes of Eastern Europe would collapse like dominoes. By 1990, the former communist leaders were out of power, free elections were held, and Germany was whole again.

The peaceful collapse of the regimes was by no means pre-ordained. Soviet tanks crushed demonstrators in East Berlin in June 1953, in Hungary in 1956, and again in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Soviet military planners were intimately involved in the Polish planning for martial law in 1980, and Soviet troops remained stationed throughout Eastern Europe, as much a guarantee for Soviet security as an ominous reminder to Eastern European peoples of Soviet dominance over their countries.

The Reagan administration’s strong rhetoric in support of the political aspirations of Eastern European and Soviet citizens was met, following 1985, with a new type of leader in the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika(restructuring) and glasnost (transparency) further legitimized popular calls for reform from within. Gorbachev also made clear—at first secretly to the Eastern European leaders, then increasingly more public—that the Soviet Union had abandoned the policy of military intervention in support of communist regimes (the Brezhnev Doctrine).

On February 6, 1989, negotiations between the Polish Government and members of the underground labor union Solidarity opened officially in Warsaw. Solidarity was formed in August 1980 following a series of strikes that paralyzed the Polish economy. The 1981 Soviet-inspired imposition of martial law drove the organization underground, where it survived due to support from Western labor organizations and Polish émigré groups. The results of the “Round Table Talks,” signed by government and Solidarity representatives on April 4, included free elections for 35% of the Parliament (Sejm), free elections for the newly created Senate, a new office of the President, and the recognition of Solidarity as a political party. On June 4, as Chinese tanks crushed student-led protests in Beijing, Solidarity delivered a crushing electoral victory. By August 24, ten years after Solidarity emerged on the scene, Tadeusz Mazowiecki became the first non-communist Prime Minister in Eastern Europe.

In Hungary, drastic changes were also under way. The government, already the most liberal of the communist governments, allowed free association and assembly and ordered opening of the country’s border with the West. In doing so, it provided an avenue to escape for an ever-increasing number of East Germans. The Hungarian Party removed its long-time leader, Janos Kadar, agreed to its own version of the Round Table talks with the opposition, and, on June 16, ceremoniously re-interred Imre Nagy, the reformist communist leader of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. By October 23, ten months after political reforms began, Hungary adopted a new constitution allowing a multi-party system and competitive elections.

The economic collapse of East Germany led increasing numbers of East Germans to seek to emigrate to the West. Thousands sought refuge in West German embassies in other communist countries, eventually forcing the government to allow them to emigrate via special trains. Visiting Berlin in early October, Gorbachev cautioned the East German leadership of the need to reform, and confided in his advisors that East German leader Erich Honecker had to be replaced. Two weeks later, Honecker was forced to resign, while hundreds of thousands marched in protest throughout major East German cities. On November 9, as the world watched on television, the East German Government announced the opening of all East German borders. In a fluid situation, the Berlin Wall came down when an obviously ill-prepared East German spokesman told reporters that the new travel regulations also applied to Berlin. Before the end of the month, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl unveiled a plan for reunification of the two Germanies.

As the Wall came down and the fears of a Soviet reaction receded, the dominoes started falling at a quickened pace. In October, riot police arrested hundreds in Prague after an unsanctioned demonstration; only weeks later, hundreds of thousands gathered in Prague to protest the government. Alexander Dubcek, the reformist communist who led the Prague Spring in 1968, made his first public appearance in over two decades. A new, non-communist government took the country’s reins on December 5, and on December 29, Vaclav Havel, the famed playwright and dissident, was elected President. In Bulgaria, protests lead to the removal of Todor Zhivkov, the long-time leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party, and his replacement with reformist communist, Petar Mladenov. The new government quickly announced that the government would hold free elections in 1990.

Only in Romania did the events turn violent. Nicolae Ceausescu, an increasingly idiosyncratic relic of Stalinist times, refused any reforms. On December 17 in Timisoara, the army and police fired into crowds protesting government policies, killing dozens. Protests spread to other cities, with hundreds killed when Ceausescu ordered the violent repression of demonstrations on December 21. By the next day, Ceausescu was forced to flee Bucharest and was arrested by army units in the countryside. The interim government, led by a reformist communist Ion Iliescu, held a quick mock trial and Ceausescu and his wife were executed on December 25.

By the summer of 1990, all of the former communist regimes of Eastern Europe were replaced by democratically elected governments. In Poland, Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia, newly formed center-right parties took power for the first time since the end of World War II. In Bulgaria and Romania, reformed communists retained control of the governments, but new center-right parties entered Parliaments and became active on the political scene. The course was set for the reintegration of Eastern Europe into Western economic, political, and security frameworks. Writing in his journal on November 10, 1989, Anatoly Chernyaev, foreign policy advisor to Gorbachev noted that the fall of the wall represented “a shift in the world balance of forces” and the end of Yalta.

Meeting in Malta on December 2, Bush and Gorbachev “buried the Cold War at the bottom of the Mediterranean” as one of Gorbachev’s staffers later described. In his memoirs, Bush noted that the rapport he built with Gorbachev at that meeting would prove beneficial later on. And while Scowcroft did not yet feel the Cold War was over, he noted that U.S. policy at the time evolved, “from quietly supporting the transformations to cultivating Soviet acquiescence, even collaboration, in them.”

The Collapse of the Soviet Union

After his inauguration in January 1989, George H.W. Bush did not automatically follow the policy of his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, in dealing with Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union. Instead, he ordered a strategic policy re-evaluation in order to establish his own plan and methods for dealing with the Soviet Union and arms control.

Boris Yeltsin makes a speech from atop a tank in front of the Russian parliament building in Moscow, U.S.S.R., Monday, Aug. 19, 1991. (AP Photo)Boris Yeltsin makes a speech from atop a tank in front of the Russian parliament building in Moscow, U.S.S.R., Monday, Aug. 19, 1991. (AP Photo)

Conditions in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, however, changed rapidly. Gorbachev’s decision to loosen the Soviet yoke on the countries of Eastern Europe created an independent, democratic momentum that led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, and then the overthrow of Communist rule throughout Eastern Europe. While Bush supported these independence movements, U.S. policy was reactive. Bush chose to let events unfold organically, careful not to do anything to worsen Gorbachev’s position.

With the policy review complete, and taking into account unfolding events in Europe, Bush met with Gorbachev at Malta in early December 1989. They laid the groundwork for finalizing START negotiations, completing the Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, and they discussed the rapid changes in Eastern Europe. Bush encouraged Gorbachev’s reform efforts, hoping that the Soviet leader would succeed in shifting the USSR toward a democratic system and a market oriented economy.

Gorbachev’s decision to allow elections with a multi-party system and create a presidency for the Soviet Union began a slow process of democratization that eventually destabilized Communist control and contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Following the May 1990 elections, Gorbachev faced conflicting internal political pressures: Boris Yeltsin and the pluralist movement advocated democratization and rapid economic reforms while the hard-line Communist elite wanted to thwart Gorbachev’s reform agenda.

Facing a growing schism between Yeltsin and Gorbachev, the Bush administration opted to work primarily with Gorbachev because they viewed him as the more reliable partner and because he made numerous concessions that promoted U.S. interests. Plans proceeded to sign the START agreement. With the withdrawal of Red Army troops from East Germany, Gorbachev agreed to German reunification and acquiesced when a newly reunited Germany joined NATO. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the United States and the Soviet leadership worked together diplomatically to repel this attack.

Yet for all of those positive steps on the international stage, Gorbachev’s domestic problems continued to mount. Additional challenges to Moscow’s control placed pressure on Gorbachev and the Communist party to retain power in order to keep the Soviet Union intact. After the demise of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the Baltic States and the Caucasus demanded independence from Moscow. In January 1991, violence erupted in Lithuania and Latvia. Soviet tanks intervened to halt the democratic uprisings, a move that Bush resolutely condemned.

By 1991, the Bush administration reconsidered policy options in light of the growing level of turmoil within the Soviet Union. Three basic options presented themselves. The administration could continue to support Gorbachev in hopes of preventing Soviet disintegration. Alternately, the United States could shift support to Yeltsin and the leaders of the Republics and provide support for a controlled restructuring or possible breakup of the Soviet Union. The final option consisted of lending conditional support to Gorbachev, leveraging aid and assistance in return for more rapid and radical political and economic reforms.

Unsure about how much political capital Gorbachev retained, Bush combined elements of the second and third options. The Soviet nuclear arsenal was vast, as were Soviet conventional forces, and further weakening of Gorbachev could derail further arms control negotiations. To balance U.S. interests in relation to events in the Soviet Union, and in order to demonstrate support for Gorbachev, Bush signed the START treaty at the Moscow Summit in July 1991. Bush administration officials also, however, increased contact with Yeltsin.

The unsuccessful August 1991 coup against Gorbachev sealed the fate of the Soviet Union. Planned by hard-line Communists, the coup diminished Gorbachev’s power and propelled Yeltsin and the democratic forces to the forefront of Soviet and Russian politics. Bush publicly condemned the coup as “extra-constitutional,” but Gorbachev’s weakened position became obvious to all. He resigned his leadership as head of the Communist party shortly thereafter—separating the power of the party from that of the presidency of the Soviet Union. The Central Committee was dissolved and Yeltsin banned party activities. A few days after the coup, Ukraine and Belarus declared their independence from the Soviet Union. The Baltic States, which had earlier declared their independence, sought international recognition.

Amidst quick, dramatic changes across the landscape of the Soviet Union, Bush administration officials prioritized the prevention of nuclear catastrophe, the curbing of ethnic violence, and the stable transition to new political orders. On September 4, 1991, Secretary of State James Baker articulated five basic principles that would guide U.S. policy toward the emerging republics: self-determination consistent with democratic principles, recognition of existing borders, support for democracy and rule of law, preservation of human rights and rights of national minorities, and respect for international law and obligations. The basic message was clear—if the new republics could follow these principles, they could expect cooperation and assistance from the United States. Baker met with Gorbachev and Yeltsin in an attempt to shore up the economic situation and develop some formula for economic cooperation between the republics and Russia, as well as to determine ways to allow political reforms to occur in a regulated and peaceful manner. In early December, Yeltsin and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus met in Brest to form the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), effectively declaring the demise of the Soviet Union.


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