Mikhail Sergeyevic Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on March 11, 1985. As of 1986 glasnot and perestroika were the words of the day. The Soviet leader stated that perestroika was based on the values of socialism, on the contemporary interpretation of the Marxist classics.

Mikhail Sergeyevic Gorbachev, elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on March 11th, 1985, fought for the improvement of the situation his country was in. At first he made use of such concepts as uskoreniye (acceleration) hoping that the gap in economic development compared to the West could be reduced. As of 1986, glasnot and perestroika were the words of the day. The Soviet leader stated that perestroika was based on the values of socialism, on the contemporary interpretation of the Marxist classics[1]. As mentioned in a relatively recent work, perestroika was a political strategy meant, above all, to consolidate the Soviet state from within and to bridge the gap between party and society[2].

At the end of April 1986, there was a very serious nuclear reactor accident in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (Ukraine). Its effects affected many Northern and Central European states but Kremlin – as customary – kept silent. It was only on May 14th, 18 days later, that Mikhail Gorbachev gave an official statement on the disaster. Understanding that hiding reality was highly prejudicial to the image of his regime, Mikhail Gorbachev decided to have a new approach of his relations with the media that was best described by the term glasnost (opening up).

On October 1st, 1988, Gorbachev was elected Chairman of the Supreme Soviet the equivalent of the head of state. Mikhail Gorbachev was most certainly a unique case in history. Once at the head of the CPSU and then of the USSR, following three old and health impaired leaders (Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko), Mikhail Gorbachev, who was a well-educated and Western-oriented young man, inspired optimism to the Soviet society. He was received with real hope by communists and the large Soviet citizen’s masses, especially the intellectuals. An important role played the support he had from the KGB that due to its intelligence service was only too aware of how backward the Soviet Union had become in its competition with the West.[3] KGB also knew that the pressure exerted by the state apparatus and the law-enforcing forces made the socialist system more and more vulnerable; in order to survive it had to go through thorough reform.

At the time, what Gorbachev proposed appeared like a miraculous solution while the leader in Kremlin seemed a great man of state, modern, open to a dialogue with society. The initiated reforms did not only fail to improve the situation in the USSR but brought a deeper economic deterioration with a worsening of the political situation as well. Historic reality showed that once Pandora’s box is open, the population could no longer be controlled by the dictatorial regime. For many, glasnost meant not only an embellishment of the image of the Communist Party that would have been ready to open a real dialogue with the citizens, but the total removal of its political monopoly. Human rights suddenly had pre-eminence over party interests while political options, even the anti-communist ones, strove for free manifestation.

Perestroika was not just the reconstruction of the socialist totalitarian system but of society itself by giving up the centralized ruling model and ensuring the free manifestation of a free market economy. Reform also referred to the form of property. Aleksandr Iakovlev, who worked closely with Gorbachev considered that a free market economy had to be introduced as quickly as possible. But that could not have been possible while the centralized ruling structures were still in place[4]. He stated that decentralizing the decision-making process and promoting free competition was vital but the idea undermined the very essence of the Soviet type socialist economy.

Gorbachev’s approach brought a change in the position of the Communist Party towards the Church. For decades, the Soviet regime had had an extremely negative attitude towards religion; churches were closed, priests were arrested while atheism was the state policy. It was only during the war that Stalin retorted to the Church in order to improve the morale of the population, thus stimulating the fight against Germany and the defence of homeland. In April 1988, Gorbachev received the Patriarch of Russia. As a consequence, churches were opened again and religious mass took place freely; some of them, attended by Gorbachev himself would be broadcast by Television. This new approach to Church was embraced by other socialist states as well while reform leaders asked for the support of the clergy in their actions against the atheist Conservatives.

The new attitude towards religion interfered with Pope’s John Paul II actions. The former Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Vojtila, was elected Pope in 1978, thus becoming the first head of the Catholic Church originating in an Eastern European country. He addressed the people in the totalitarian states with the famous phrase by now “Have no fear!” meaning they should lead a fearless struggle against dictatorship, but for freedom and faith.

At Gorbachev’s initiative, many dissidents were rehabilitated. One of them was Andrei Dmitrievicha Sakharov. Others followed, namely personalities of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, victims of Stalin’s repression: Nikolai Buharin, Gregory Yevsevich Zinoviev and even Leon Trotsky.

Gorbachev’s policy encouraged, without his realizing all the consequences, the development of civil society in the Soviet Union states. This way, in the Baltic States, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova a revival of the national spirit took place, that had been previously oppressed by the totalitarian regime. For instance, at the plenary session of the Chairing Committee of the Writers’ Union in the Socialist Soviet Republic of Moldova of March 1988, a motion was made for the proclamation of the Moldavian language as official language of the Republic and reinstating its full social function.[5] On May 28th, 1988, Mişcarea Democratică din Moldova în Susţinerea Restructurării (Moldavia’s Democratic Movement for the Support of Restructuring) was created with a view to promoting Gorbachev’s new policy.

Considering that the USSR could no longer cope with the arms race, Gorbachev chose another approach to international relations. In his speech at the UN General Assembly Session[6] on December 7th, 1988, he said that international relations should give up confrontation in favour of cooperation and that force was no longer an instrument of foreign policy. He also expressed his belief that there was a “compelling necessity of the principle of freedom of choice” and “increasing varieties of social development” in the world.

Mikhail Gorbachev gained a lot of popularity in the West. His picture made the first pages of the important newspapers in the United States, Great Britain, France, etc., Western television and radio stations were competing in taking interviews while he together with his wife, Raisa, were highly likeable partners of dialogue. The Soviet Union was no longer “an empire of evil”, but an interesting country, worth being appreciated.

Ever since the beginning of his activity as a General Secretary of the CPSU, Gorbachev – according to an old Soviet tradition – attempted to remove the old leaders at the head of the communist parties and promote instead, young activists able to attain perestroika.

Through his glasnost and perestroika policy, Gorbachev encouraged in fact, the development of the civil society in socialist states. In a limited meeting, attended by Eduard Shevarnadze and Aleksandr Iakovlev, the main supporters of the reform, a new strategy was conceived that aimed at improving society dynamics. That meant an improvement in the activity of people’s fronts under the leadership of communist parties, according to the model used in the inter-war period by the people’s antifascist front. At that moment, the cooperation with the bourgeoisie democratic parties was highlighted while at the moment we are talking about the aim which was to form and train leaders of opinion from among intellectuals, writers, artists and others. The developments during 1988 and 1989 proved that this worked and intellectuals were leading the reform movements in most socialist countries.

Stimulated by the Soviet officials, the fronts were escaping from under their influence, developing their own strategies and becoming the very source of political parties[7]. On the other hand, hard-line conservative leaders of communist parties asked that some dissident intellectuals be arrested or expelled, which only grew the latter’s popularity. In 1989, the expelled ones (the dissidents) came forward as spokespersons of the civil society.

Another method by which Gorbachev tried to weaken the conservative leaders’ positions was infiltration into the secret services (securitate) of the socialist countries so that they should have a diminished or totally annihilated reaction capability in case of opposition movements. During the meetings with the chiefs of the respective secret services, the Soviet Union representatives tried to sow the idea that it was only through glasnost and perestroika that social and political tensions could have been diminished and that socialism – as known until then – was not unchanging. In other words, it was replaceable with another form of political state organization.

  The most complicated situation was in Poland where, since the 1970s, there had been great social upheavals. In December 1970, the army intervened for the repression of the strike declared by the workers at the Baltic Sea shipyards, killing 36 and injuring another 1,200. New protests rose in June 1976 and in July-August 1980, the government signed an agreement with the leader of the Gdansk strikers, electrician Lech Walesa. It was for the first time that a communist government negotiated with a union that was not controlled by the party. Sensing the danger for socialism, on December 4th Soviet leaders decided that Warsaw Treaty member states should intervene with a military force in Poland. As Nicolae Ceauşescu and János Kádár opposed the initiative, it was abandoned[8].

Against this background of social tensions, General Wojciech Witold Jaruzelski appeared on the political scene. He became Prime Minister in February and First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PUWP) in October. In October 1981, he imposed martial law in Poland, suspended the activity of the union Solidarity and arrested thousands of its activists.[9]

The leaders of Solidarity did not make any opposition and Adam Michnik would explain later that it was a matter of choosing between the martial law – with all its unpleasant consequences, with a death toll of one hundred, with thousands of wronged and humiliated but a surviving Poland – or the Soviet intervention.[10] The Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevarnadze appreciated Jaruzelski’s decision saying that he saved the country from a second outside intervention, by convincing the Soviet leadership that Poland was perfectly capable of keeping things under control. By calling a state of emergency in Polish uniform he removed the danger of intervention.[11]

Though officially terminated, Solidarity continued to function and its leader, Lech Walesa, got strong support from the Western world. In 1983, Lech Walesa was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. Once things cooled off, a general amnesty was given in September 1986 (in November 1985 Wojciech Jaruzelski had given up his position as Prime Minister and stayed the President of the country). The general sought popular support for his new orientation which is why he had a referendum organized on November 30, 1987. The small number of attendants resulted in the annulment of the referendum. But Jaruzelski didn’t give up and initiated, on August 26, 1988, Round Table talks with the participation of the coalition government faction and the solidarity opposition faction, that was observing the legal order and the Constitution.[12] The road to negotiations was open. In September 1988, Mieczyslaw Rakovski, a supporter of the Gorbachev type of reforms, was appointed at the head of the government.

In Bulgaria, Todor Jivkov, who was famous for his obedience to the leaders in Kremlin – irrespective of their orientation – declared his approval for the reforms proposed by Gorbachev. In July 1987, he presented the Bulgarian Communist Party an ample program for the restructuring of the socialist system but never took steps for its implementation. On the other hand, Jivkov who had been at the head of the Bulgarian Communist Party since 1954, was not to Gorbachev’s liking, who had in mind a younger leader, capable of sincerely implementing perestroika in Bulgaria.

In Hungary, communist leader Kádár János, who was imposed in his position by Soviets in 1956, adopted a policy of pacification of the society. He replaced the Stalinist slogan “you’re either with us or against us” with “you’re not with us, but you’re not against us either”. He promoted what was known as Gulash-socialism, meant to improve the population’s standard of living. The Hungarian Workers’ Socialist Party (SUMP) adopted a nationalist policy by which the nostalgia for Great Hungary was cultivated, with emphasis on the huge injustice his country was done at Trianon in 1920. Against this background, a bridge was created between Budapest and the Hungarian emigrants, especially those in the USA. Ever since the ‘70s it could be easily seen how well the former horthysts, Hungarians who fled the country in 1956 and later, cooperated with those who emigrated legally in Western countries. In December 1986, Hungary’s representative at the 3rd Meeting of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe held in Vienna raised the question of Hungarians in neighbouring countries being discriminated. Two American historians would note that the Western media immediately took over and fuelled the conflict. Human rights issues sold very well to the public and in no time the situation of the minorities in Transylvania came to the attention of the international public opinion, while it roused the interest of two American congressmen.[13] A reforming wing was formed within the MSZMP headed by Poszgay Imre. On May 22th, 1988, Kádár János was replaced at the party leadership by a Presidium chaired by Reszö Nyers, with Károly Grósz as General Secretary.

In Czechoslovakia, Gustáv Husák, who was set in power by the Soviets in 1968, declared himself in favour of reforms but he had never really taken the road opened by Gorbachev. In March 1987, he presented the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party with a program of reforms and democratization of the society stating that as it had before, in its long history, the party would once more use the experience of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.[14] The most important step taken at leadership level was the replacement of Prime Minister Lubomir Štrougal with Ladislav Adamec, more open to the idea of reform.

Albania continued to be a closed state where Ramiz Alia – follower of historical leader Enver Hoxha (dead in 1985) who led the liberation struggle from under Italian occupation – ruled the country as rigidly as his predecessor.

Yugoslavia, the most advanced country in implementing reforms with the widest international opening, had known a troubled period after the death of Iosip Broz Tito. Social tensions developed on top of ethnic ones. As strikes were allowed in the country, workers used this means of struggle to its fullest. After 1986, there were no less than 900 strikes.[15] National aspects began to be highlighted also with outside help, mainly from West Germany and the US. Due to the disappearance of polarity, as a consequence of the Soviet Union crisis, the Yugoslav state began losing its international status. The West no longer needed Yugoslavia, was the conclusion historian Miroslav Tejchman reached, as it was no longer interested in the counterbalance it had posed to the Soviet influence.[16]

The strongest political personality was Slobodan Milošević elected president of the Central Committee of the Communists’s Union of Serbia in May 1986. His main concern had been maintaining Yugoslavia’s unity by appointing loyal leaders in the autonomous provinces of Vojvodina, Montenegro, Kosovo.

In the Democratic Republic of Germany, Erich Honecker was elected as First Secretary of the Central Committee of the United Socialist Party of Germany in 1971 and President of the State Council in 1976. He was hostile to the reforms proposed by Gorbachev, which he considered dangerous for the socialist state order.

[1] Mihail Gorbaciov, Memorii [Memoirs], Translated by Radu Pontbriandt. Edition Petre Dan, Bucharest, Nemira Publishing House, 1994, p. 113.

[2] Istoria secolului XX. În căutarea unei noi lumi [1973 până în zilele noastre]. [History of the 20th Century. The Quest for A New World (1973 to the Present Day)] Undu the editorial of: Serge Berstein and Pierre Milza. Translated by Marius Ioan, Bucharest, All Publishing House, 1998, p. 161.

[3] Henry Kissinger, Diplomaţia… [Diplomacy], p. 694.

[4] Aleksandr Iakovlev, Ce vrem să facem din Uniunea Sovietică [What Shall We Do with the Soviet Union], p. 69.

[5] Gheorghe E. Cojocaru, 1989 la Est de Prut [1989 in the East of Prut], Prut Intenational Publishing House, Chişinău, 2001, p. 31.

[6] Mihail Gorbaciov, Memorii… [Memoirs], pp. 211-222.

[7] Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, Triumful naţiunilor sau sfârşitul imperiului sovietic, [La gloire des nations ou la fin de l’Empire soviétique], Remember Publishing House, Bucharest, 1993, p. 132.

[8] General colonel [r], dr. Constantin Olteanu, România, o voce distinctă în Tratatul de la Varşovia. Memorii. 1980-1985. Dialog cu Dumitru Avram [Romania, A Distinct Voice within the Warsaw Treaty. Memoirs. 1980-1985. A Dialogue with Dumitru Avram], Aldo Publishing House, Bucharest, 1999, pp. 102-109.

[9] Stelian Tănase, Miracolul revoluţiei. O istorie politică a căderii regimurilor comuniste [The Miracle of the Revolution: A Political History of the Collapse of the Communist Regimes], Humanitas Publishing House, Bucharest, 1999, p. 61.

[10] Adam Michnik, Restauraţia de catifea [The Velvet Restoration], Polirom Publishing House, Iaşi, 2001, p. 234.

[11] Eduard Şevardnadze, Opţiunea mea [My Way],Translation by Virgil Constantinescu, Presa Naţională Publishing House, Bucharest, 2003, p. 195.

[12] Jean-François Soulet, Istoria comparată a statelor comuniste din 1945 până în zilele noastre [Compared History of Communist States from 1945 to Present Day] translation by Silvia Albeşteanu and Ana Zbârcea, Polirom Publishing House, Iaşi, 1988, p. 298.

[13] Joseph F. Harrington, Bruce J. Courtney, Relaţii româno-americane. 1940-1999 [Romanian-American Relations. 1940-1999], Translation by Mihaela Sadovschi, European Institute, Iaşi, 2002, p. 525.

[14] Jean-François Soulet, Istoria comparată a statelor comuniste… [Compared History of Communist States from 1945 to Present Day], p. 299.

[15] Ibidem, p. 303.

[16] Miroslav Tejchman, “Condiţiile politice şi economice, interne şi externe, ale prăbuşirii regimurilor comuniste în Balcani”, in Caietele Revoluţiei [The Political and Economic, Internal and External Conditions of the Collapse of Communist Regimes in the Balkans], no. 6/2007, p. 25.


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