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USSR: The Year 1989 Foreshadowed The Fall

  • Jeremy Bransten

Unlike its neighbors in Eastern Europe, the USSR survived the revolutions of 1989 seemingly unscathed -- the Communist Party remained at the helm of the country. But in many respects, 1989 was pivotal. It was the year when the reforms initiated by General-Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev began to spin out of his control. As part of RFE/RL's series on the events of 1989, Jeremy Bransten looks at the forces that would lead to the breakup of the USSR two years later.

Prague, 6 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- At the start of 1989, when Soviet troops withdrew from Afghanistan, the move was greeted with relief. It marked the end of a costly, unpopular and unwinnable war.

The concepts of "glasnost" and "perestroika" -- unveiled by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev just a couple of years before -- received another boost.

By the end of 1989, the USSR had "lost" Eastern Europe, and its hold on the Baltics had become tenuous. The entire Soviet Union suddenly appeared shaky -- rocked by ethnic conflicts, deepening economic crises, and fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party.

Like the British and the French in the 1960s, the Soviets discovered that decolonization, once initiated, was hard to control. The problem with the USSR was that the country contained an empire within itself. Once freedom of speech was allowed, the authority of the Communist Party quickly eroded, and the whole state structure came into question.

By promoting democratization, Gorbachev undermined his own position -- something that became clear in 1989. British historian Martin McCauley has written several books on the last years of the USSR, most recently a profile of Gorbachev. He recently told RFE/RL that the partly free election of a Soviet parliamentary assembly in March 1989 -- called the Congress of People's Deputies -- was an important catalyst.

By early 1989, McCauley notes, everyone could see the economy was plunging into crisis. Industry, heavily dependent on orders from the military, had not restructured, nor had the catastrophically inefficient agricultural sector. Forty percent of the USSR's hard currency earnings were spent on food and animal feed. Rationing for meat and sugar was extended throughout the country. Staples such as milk, tea, coffee, and soap vanished from store shelves even in Moscow. Most desirable commodities disappeared from state stores, only to reappear at inflated prices in the so-called private, cooperative enterprises sanctioned by Gorbachev. It was then, McCauley says, that the Soviet leader decided to push forward on political reforms, only to find his authority challenged to an even greater extent as a result:

"I think you can point to the election of the Congress of People's Deputies in 1989 as the breakpoint. You can say that for the first couple of years, when (Gorbachev) concentrated on economic reform, the failure of the economic reform by 1987 made it very clear that 'perestroika' had not worked -- that living standards were not increasing -- and therefore he decided to take great risks politically."

McCauley says that "those risks involved taking the Central Committee of the Communist Party out of the day-to-day running of the economy. But, McCauley says, Gorbachev put "nothing back in its place."

McCauley says that Gorbachev, though serving as first speaker of the new Congress of People's Deputies, couldn't control the body.

"The deputies became extremely radical, because they were addressing a constituency and therefore they voted pension increases and other things for which they didn't have to pay, because the Congress of People's Deputies didn't tax. And all these events took him by surprise. One can really say that by '89 he was losing control of the domestic agenda."

Not only did the Congress of People's Deputies advocate populist and ultimately disastrous economic policies, but its first session at the end of May became a forum for the airing of mounting nationalist grievances. With the proceedings aired live on national television, Soviet viewers sat transfixed as Georgian deputies assailed the government for the killing of 19 unarmed civilians during independence demonstrations in Tbilisi the previous month.

Deputies from the three Baltic republics, meanwhile, put forward demands for autonomy, arguing for the right to overrule decisions made in Moscow. Gorbachev, says McCauley, had failed to anticipate the passion behind these demands, even as he offered more concessions in months to come:

"It's quite clear from what Gorbachev said afterwards and his memoirs that he didn't understand that the Baltic states -- the Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians -- wanted to leave the Soviet Union at any price. They would have paid any economic price. They would have lived on bread and water just to have escaped the Soviet Union. He didn't appreciate that. He could not appreciate their reasons for not wanting to join a federation or confederation which would succeed the Soviet Union."

From Russia itself, a new crop of reformers, bolder than Gorbachev, used the Congress of People's Deputies to begin challenging the Kremlin. Deputies such as Boris Yeltsin, elected overwhelmingly to a Moscow constituency against the government's hand-picked candidate, no longer felt beholden to Gorbachev for their jobs.

As the chorus of protests mounted, the Soviet leadership became faced with the defection of Eastern Europe. In semi-democratic parliamentary elections in Poland, the Communists were roundly defeated and soon forced to accept a non-Communist prime minister. At the same time, calls for the Soviet army to withdraw from Hungary grew louder as that country's Communist government was forced to accept negotiations with the opposition. Discontent soon spread to East Germany, as it became clear that Gorbachev would not use force to put down anti-Communist revolts.

That decision not to use force allowed Eastern Europe's revolutions to go forward and assured the Soviet leader a hallowed place in the history books. But as McCauley points out, all indications are that Gorbachev at the time still believed popular discontent in the region would only lead to reformed Communist regimes. One oft-quoted remark is his October warning to East German leader Erich Honnecker to reform or be left behind by the tide of history. McCauley says that when East German Prime Minister Lothar de Maiziere thanked Gorbachev for that statement a few weeks later, calling it a turning point in undermining the legitimacy of the East German Communist Party, the Soviet leader said that wasn't what he had meant to do.

By then, Gorbachev was being assailed at home both by his conservative enemies, who accused him of destroying the fruits of 40 years of Soviet history, and by his one-time allies. Dissident scientist Andrei Sakharov called for the abolition of Article 6 of the constitution, which guaranteed the leading role of the Soviet Communist Party. And the increasingly prominent politician Boris Yeltsin was especially vocal in calling to reform the party's role.

"We need very radical changes inside the party. Article 6 of the existing constitution, which talks about the guiding role of the party, should either be eliminated from the constitution or radically reformulated. The party, in my view, should be able to operate like any other social organization in Soviet society -- that is to say within the confines of the law."

When the Congress of People's Deputies reconvened in December, the mood had soured and Gorbachev tried to backpedal, but this only made him seem more unconvincing and ineffectual.

After presiding over the collapse of Communism across Eastern Europe, Gorbachev told deputies, in a surprisingly passionate monologue: "I am a Communist, a convinced Communist! For some that may be a fantasy. But for me it is the main goal."

To many, it appeared that the Soviet leader had lost his bearings. When Sakharov tried to appeal for the revocation of Article 6, Gorbachev, in frustration, turned off his microphone. The Soviet leader had painted himself into a corner, and in that moment, the contradiction of his position -- as simultaneously a reformer and defender of the status quo -- was made clear. Russian human rights activist and legislator Sergei Kovalyov spoke with RFE/RL this week about the events of 1989:

"The aim of Gorbachev's team was not at all to create new mechanisms for governing the country. The aim was not to reform the country but to reform the Communist Party...They weren't trying for democratic pluralism. They didn't want any competition from other political parties or to decide questions of power through competition. They didn't want a full-fledged democratic revolution. They wanted to modernize the Soviet Communist Party and keep it in power."

That proved impossible. A week later, Sakharov died. His last words were reportedly: "Tomorrow, there will be a battle." The Soviet Union collapsed two years later and private citizen Gorbachev, the unwitting architect of its destruction, retreated into political oblivion.