End of an Era—Hope for the Future?
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN GERMANY
BETWEEN 1987 and 1990, earthquakes measuring 6.9 or higher on the Richter scale shook parts of Armenia, China, Ecuador, Iran, the Philippines, and the United States. Some 70,000 people were killed and tens of thousands more were injured, while hundreds of thousands were left homeless. Damage ran into the billions of dollars.
Still, none of these temblors jolted as many people, or did so as severely, as another earthquake that rocked the world at the same time. It was a political earthquake, one that put an end to an era. By doing so, it changed the future for millions.
What led up to such an outstanding event? What would its repercussions be?
Glasnost and Perestroika
Mikhail Gorbachev was named general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on March 11, 1985. Soviet citizens, as well as most world observers, expected no major political changes during his administration.
Less than a year later, Arkady Shevchenko, a former political adviser to the Soviet foreign minister, and for five years an under secretary-general of the United Nations, commented with particular insight when he wrote: “The U.S.S.R. is at a crossroads. If pressing economic and social problems are not alleviated in the near future, further erosion in its economic system is inevitable, thus endangering, in the long term, its very survival. . . . Gorbachev has definitely initiated a new style . . . But whether his stewardship will open a new era for the U.S.S.R. remains to be seen. . . . He faces problems that are almost insurmountable.”
Gorbachev’s position now gave him the political influence he needed to introduce into Soviet society a policy he had talked about as early as 1971. It was glasnost, which means “public information” and represented a policy of official candor on Soviet problems. It called for a more open society, one where Soviet citizens and the press would have greater freedom of expression. Eventually, glasnost opened the way for public criticism of the government and some of its actions.
Another term Gorbachev had long used was “perestroika,” a word meaning “restructuring.” In an essay published in 1982, he spoke of “the need for an appropriate psychological restructuring” in the field of agriculture.
After becoming head of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev became convinced that a restructuring of economic management was also a must. He knew that it would not be easy to accomplish—perhaps even impossible unless accompanied by political change.
Gorbachev’s zeal in implementing the policies of glasnost and perestroika did not mean that he was out to destroy Communism. On the contrary. The Encyclopædia Britannica explains: “His goal was to set in motion a revolution controlled from above. He did not wish to undermine the Soviet system, only to make it more efficient.”
The easing of restrictions that came as a result of these policies was a cause for unease among some members of the Soviet Union’s leadership. The same was true of leaders of some of the Eastern bloc countries. Whereas many of them recognized the need for economic restructuring, not all agreed that political changes were necessary or desirable.
Nevertheless, Gorbachev let his Eastern European allies know that they were free to experiment with perestroika programs of their own. Meanwhile, Gorbachev warned Bulgaria—and in reality all the other Eastern bloc countries as well—that while reforms were necessary, care should be taken not to diminish the dominant role of the Communist Party.
Beginning to Falter
Criticism of Communism, both in the Soviet Union and in the Eastern bloc countries, had increased over the years. For example, since the early 1980’s, the Hungarian weekly newsmagazine HVG (Heti Világgazdaság) had been aggressively challenging orthodox Communist views, although it had avoided directly criticizing the Communist Party itself.
Solidarity, the first independent labor union to exist in the Eastern bloc, was founded in Poland in 1980. Its origin, however, could be traced back to 1976, when a group of dissidents formed a Workers’ Defense Committee. By early 1981, Solidarity had a membership of some ten million workers. It pushed for economic reforms and free elections, backing up its demands at times with strikes. Bowing to the threat of possible Soviet intervention, the Polish government finally dissolved the union, even though it continued operating underground. Strikes calling for governmental recognition led to the union’s being legalized again in 1989. Free elections were held in June 1989, and many Solidarity candidates were elected. By August, for the first time in some 40 years, a non-Communist premier was serving in Poland.
Glasnost and perestroika, along with problems encountered in the Communist world, were clearly reshaping the entire Eastern bloc.
Political Perestroika Leads to Revolution
“Until July 1987,” writes Martin McCauley of the University of London, “everything appeared to be going Mikhail Gorbachev’s way.” Even as late as June 1988, at the 19th Communist Party Conference in Moscow, Gorbachev reportedly gained “broad if occasionally lukewarm endorsement for his programs.” But it was evident that he was meeting with difficulties in restructuring the Communist Party and the Soviet government.
In 1988, constitutional changes allowed for replacing the existing Supreme Soviet with the U.S.S.R. Congress of People’s Deputies, whose 2,250 members were chosen a year later in free elections. These deputies, in turn, chose from among themselves a two-chamber legislature, each part composed of 271 members. Boris Yeltsin turned out to be a prominent member of this legislature. He was soon pointing out the lack of success of perestroika and calling attention to reforms that he felt were necessary. Thus, even though Gorbachev had been elevated in 1988 to the presidency, a position he wanted to revamp and strengthen, opposition to him continued to grow.
Meanwhile, the two superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, were making major breakthroughs in reducing military forces and defusing the nuclear threat. Each agreement that was made kindled renewed hope that world peace could be achieved—so much so that writer John Elson noted in September 1989: “The final days of the ’80s, to many commentators, represent a kind of farewell to arms. The cold war appears all but over; peace seems to be breaking out in many parts of the world.”
Then came November 9, 1989. Although physically still intact, the Berlin Wall, after some 28 years, was opened and suddenly ceased to be a symbolic barrier between East and West. One after another, in quick succession, the nations of Eastern Europe abandoned socialistic rule. In his book Death of the Dark Hero—Eastern Europe, 1987-90, David Selbourne called it “one of the greatest of all historic revolutions: a democratic, and essentially anti-socialist revolution, the effects of which will continue long after its actors, and their observers, have disappeared from the scene.”
Once it reached its pinnacle, the peaceful revolution was quickly over. A sign seen in Prague, Czechoslovakia, summed it up this way: “Poland—10 Years; Hungary—10 Months; East Germany—10 Weeks; Czechoslovakia—10 Days. And then, after a week of horror, Rumania—10 Hours.”
Ending the Cold War
Author Selbourne says: “The pattern of the collapse of the eastern European system was remarkably constant.” He then adds: “The catalyst was clearly Gorbachev’s assumption of power in Moscow in March 1985 and his ending of the ‘Brezhnev Doctrine’, which fatally deprived eastern Europe’s regimes of the assurance of Soviet assistance and intervention in the event of popular uprising.”
The New Encyclopædia Britannica calls Gorbachev “the single most important initiator of a series of events in late 1989 and 1990 that transformed the political fabric of Europe and marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War.”
Of course, Gorbachev could not have ended the Cold War alone. Indicative of what would soon follow, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher said after first meeting him: “I like Mr. Gorbachev. We can do business together.” Furthermore, the unique personal relationship that Thatcher and American president Reagan enjoyed enabled her to convince him that it was the course of wisdom to work with Gorbachev. Gail Sheehy, author of the book Gorbachev—The Making of the Man Who Shook the World, concludes: “Thatcher could congratulate herself on being, ‘in a very real sense, godmother to the Reagan-Gorbachev relationship.’”
As has often happened in history, the key people had been in place at the opportune time to effect changes that otherwise might not have taken place.
Dark Clouds on the Horizon
Even as East and West rejoiced that the Cold War was coming to an end, threatening clouds were making their appearance elsewhere. The world took little notice in 1988 when it heard from Africa that several thousand people in Burundi had been killed in an outbreak of ethnic violence. Nor was more than scant attention given reports issuing from Yugoslavia in April 1989 that the worst outbreak of ethnic violence since 1945 was taking place there. Meanwhile, the greater freedom evident in the Soviet Union was resulting in widespread civil unrest. Some of the republics were even launching attempts to achieve independence.
In August 1990, Iraqi troops moved into Kuwait, conquering it within 12 hours. While Germans, less than a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, were celebrating German unification, Iraq’s president was boasting: “Kuwait belongs to Iraq, and we will never give it up even if we have to fight over it for 1,000 years.” In November the United Nations rose to the occasion and threatened military action unless Iraq withdrew from Kuwait. The world was once again teetering on the brink of possible disaster, and control of oil supplies was the basic issue.
So, were the hopes for peace and security that were kindled by the end of the Cold War due to die before fruition? Read about this in our next issue in the article “The ‘New World Order’—Off to a Shaky Start.”
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The Berlin Wall suddenly ceased to be a symbolic barrier between East and West
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Gorbachev (left) and Reagan: Robert/Sipa Press