Le grand dessein international de Gorbatchev et l’effondrement du communisme en Europe de l’Est
1 janvier 1998, Jacques Lévesque
Jacques Lévesque. «Le grand dessein international de Gorbatchev et l’effondrement du communisme en Europe de l’Est», in Anne de Tinguy (Ed.), L’effondrement de l’Empire soviétique, Bruxelles: Bruylant, 1998. pp 331-346.
and the Eastern European Collapse
English version of « Le grand dessein international de Gorbatchev
et l’effondrement du communisme en Europe de l’Est », in Anne de Tinguy
(Ed.), L’effondrement de l’Empire soviétique, Bruxelles: Bruylant,
1998. pp 331-346.
Professor of Political Science
Université du Québec à Montréal
Everything indicates that « mature » Leninist regimes were
unreformable and bound to collapse. The evidence is indeed compelling. In 1968,
after the Prague Spring, given the very wide popular support for the Dubcek
regime one could still think that a qualitatively new synthesis between « real
socialism » and economic and political liberalism would have worked if the experience
had not been interrupted by Soviet military intervention. For a brief moment,
in September 1980, one could imagine that a new model could emerge in Poland,
when Solidarnosc demanded and obtained social pluralism without making a claim
on political power. Rapidly, however the compromise unravelled and the regime
headed towards complete collapse which could only be prevented by Jaruzelski’s
coup. It could then be argued, as this writer did , that specific Polish conditions,
namely, the economic collapse and the weakness and disintegration of the Party
at the very beginning of the process, had made a stable compromise unworkable.
However, the quasi-simultaneity of the collapse of all
Eastern European regimes in 1989, independently of their initial strength and
of their reformist or conservative orientation, irrespective of the economic
situation of each country, made specific conditions increasingly irrelevant
as an impediment for the success of a reformed socialism. Still, it could be
said that all the Eastern European regimes had in common a crucial specific
feature that was a decisive obstacle to a successful reform. They had been imposed
from outside and, in contrast to the Soviet matrix, they were not the social
and political product of their society.
Hence it was the experience of perestroïka in the
USSR that made the most powerful case against the reformability of « existing
socialism ». When Gorbachev took power, the economic situation of the USSR was
bad but no dramatic breakdown was in sight. The Party leadership was in full
control; and when it decided to embark on the path of reform, it did not act
under social pressure or threat of upheaval. It had virtually complete freedom
to manoeuvre. The conditions were « ideal », or the best possible for the implementation
of a reformed socialism, the viability of which still had to be demonstrated.
We know what happened.
This is not to say that the Soviet and East European communist
regimes were bound to collapse the way they did and as rapidly as they did.
In this regard, different policies could have produced different results. Even
though it is highly doubtful that it could have been transferable to the USSR,
not to mention Eastern Europe, the Chinese experience shows that there is not
a single model of disintegration and that it can be extended over a long period
of time. Essentially thanks to a successful liquidation of collectivized agriculture,
China and Vietnam (two agrarian societies) currently have booming economies.
But they are far from moving towards a new democratic form of socialism.
To a considerable degree, Gorbachev’s international policies
and designs have been a reflection of his domestic agenda. As a consequence,
they help in understanding why communism in Europe ended so peacefully and so
rapidly. At the same time, in a different realm, Gorbachev’s foreign policy
outcomes played a significant role, at times in helping stabilise the situation
in the USSR, at other times, in accelerating its disintegration.
One must distinguish between two phases of Gorbachev’s
foreign policy. The first, that lasts from 1986 to the fall of 1989, is the
flamboyant and conquering one. During that period, he constantly kept the initiative
in world affairs. His breathtaking proposals and concessions for disarmament
and for a new international order increasingly carried world public opinion
to his side and put the US and NATO on the defensive. His successes helped him
neutralize conservative skeptics and opponents in the USSR, making foreign policy
the area of the widest political consensus. The second phase begins with the
unexpected and serial collapse of the Eastern European regimes that followed
the opening of the Berlin Wall by the end of 1989. Overwhelmed by this momentous
change in world affairs, the Soviet leader lost, one of the main instruments
of his foreign policy, the Warsaw Pact, and was suddenly put on the defensive,
waging rearguard battles to maintain his influence in European affairs. The
Eastern European collapse gave a tremendous impulse to the forces of disintegration
that were to spell the end of the Soviet Union a year and a half later. For
instance, it boosted nationalism in the Baltic Republics, increased polarization
in Russian political circles and rapidly made Gorbachev lose control of the
For all these reasons, Soviet policy and behaviour towards
Eastern Europe before and during the collapse is a key to understanding why
communism disappeared from Europe the way it did, why its disappearance was
far from being entirely preordained and how it largely depended on contingent
Soviet political choices.
Gorbachev’s policy towards Eastern Europe in 1989 was part
and parcel of a grand design for transforming the international order in Europe,
through a controlled overcoming of its division, over an extended period of
time. He expected from that controlled process the greatest possible benefits
for the USSR. At the military and economic levels, the gradual overcoming of
the division of Europe was to be achieved through bloc to bloc negotiations
between the NATO and the Warsaw Pact and between the EEC and COMECON. The Warsaw
Pact and NATO were not to disappear but to be « de-antagonized » through disarmament
measures and to serve as an infrastructure for the construction of a new pan-European
security system. Gorbachev’s team considered that a significant degree of democratization
of the Soviet and East European societies was a crucial ingredient for a successful
overcoming of the division of Europe and for the building of a « Common European
To state it briefly, at the European as well as at the global level, the Soviet
Grand Design was one of universal reconciliation. Socialism was to be revitalized
through democratization and a mixed economy, while retaining its best features.
On the other side, with the disappearance of global confrontation, and with
depolarization, the democratic left in the West was to make headway towards
more socialization, in a new convergent and more integrated world. Without being
clearly conscious of all that it meant, it was a process of social-democratisation
that the Gorbachev’s team and the intelligenstia behind it were undergoing between
1987 and 1991. In a strikingly similar manner, the Italian Communist Party,
which underwent such a process from the mid-seventies up to Berlinguer’s death
in 1984, also denied that it was becoming a social-democratic party. It based
its claim on the advocacy and the feasibility of « la terza via », a third way
between the Soviet and Western models.
Though foreign policy and domestic transformations were
interrelated, the first were pursued in a much more purposeful and coherent
manner. Rapid and consistent change was easier to accomplish in that realm.
If the content of Gorbachev’s foreign policy had an emerging social-democratic
orientation, its thrust still had very distinctive Leninist characteristics.
It bore the imprint of a promethean ambition to reshape the world order. In
a typically Leninist and voluntaristic fashion it overestimated the possibilities
of moulding and channelling the course of international events. Convinced that
they had grasped new deep and objective tendencies at work in world development,
Gorbachev’s team thought they could give the USSR a new political and moral
leadership role in reshaping the world order. Because of its mobilizing and
promising character, it initially contributed to neutralize conservative forces
in the USSR.
In spite of the warnings from its conservative opponents,
Gorbachev’s team was deeply convinced that a reformed socialism was feasible
and viable in Eastern Europe as well as in the USSR. Not only did they believe
that democratization of socialism was viable, but they even tried to persuade
their Eastern European counterparts that it was the only way prevent an eventual
collapse. In February 1989, a confidential report was sent by the International
Department of the CPSU Central Committee to Alexandr Yakovlev in his capacity
as Chairman of the Party’s new International Commission. It was stated that:
« it is not appropriate to exaggerate the danger that one or another socialist
state could simply switch to the capitalist road » because « the roots of
socialism have penetrated too deeply. » The report asserted that such a
rupture would lead to chaos and immense misery, and that even the capitalist
countries would not encourage it, so as not to be obliged to assume the enormous
costs that support would entail…
Soviet reformist leaders were convinced that if their counterparts
in Eastern Europe were bold enough to take the initiative in democratizing their
regimes, they could keep control of the process. These assumptions proved to
be fatal illusions. They cannot be simply considered mistakes that could have
been easily avoided. They stood at the core of the political agenda of Gorbachev’s
team. If they refused to heed the warnings of Ligachev and the conservatives,
it is because they had stakeded their entire political future on these fundamental
assumptions. On the other hand, if Ligachev had prevailed or if Andropov had
lived twelve years longer, the USSR and its Eastern European empire would probably
still be around, though in worse shape than they were in 1983.
To be sure, if democratisation in Eastern Europe was considered
by Gorbachev as both desirable and feasible, it was not a goal that was pursued
with much vigor and determination. That is why conservative regimes could remain
in power in a majority of East European countries as late as 1989. Eastern Europe
was a low priority in Gorbachev’s foreign policy and was an area of considerable
neglect. First priority was given to reshaping East-West relations. At least
for a first phase, Gorbachev believed that his concessions in the sphere of
arms control together with perestroïka within the USSR would be sufficient
to set in motion the process of East-West rapprochement and European reconciliation.
Moreover, he wanted to distance himself from his predecessors by refusing to
impose changes in the leadership of the East European countries from the outside
. He believed that he could have the best of two worlds -« change within stability »-
if change « matured » and occurred from within. This was also a way to avoid
taking direct and personal responsibility, in case things went wrong. It is
only in the summer of 1989, when Honecker was becoming a more and more obvious
nuisance to his European policy, that he made very indirect gestures and steps
to precipitate his departure. With a more interventionist Soviet policy,
applied earlier, events could have evolved in a different way, at least in some
of these countries. We shall come back to this later.
When significant changes began to occur in Poland and Hungary
at the beginning of 1989, as a result of the policies of the reformist Communist
leaders of these countries, they were met with clear satisfaction and encouragement
in Moscow. For Gorbachev, the Polish Roundtable agreements represented an ideal
model for future developments in Eastern Europe and for the goals of his foreign
policy. While preserving a majority of seats for the Communist and satellite
parties, the agreements allowed for the entrance of Solidar-nosc into Parliament
and eventually into a coalition government. While introducing significant measures
of democratization, they guaranteed the preservation of the hegemony of the
communist party for at least five years. The West would have felt compelled
to encourage and sustain the process through economic assistance. It would have
made Gorbachev’s European policy and disarmament proposals more irresistible
in a context of growing enthusiasm for his overall policies in the West and
above all in West Germany.
As we know, the terms of the agreements unravelled during
the summer of 1989 as a result of the incapacity of the Communists to win their
reserved seats in the first round of the elections; this was a terribly deligitimizing
blow for them. Finally, with the explicit consent of Gorbachev, they felt compelled
to hand over the Premiership to Tadeusz Mazowiecki, who accepted to take only
4 Communist ministers. However, out of deference to Soviet power, the « power
Ministries » (as they are called in Russian), Defence and Police, were left to
Communists. Mazowiecki and Walesa pledged that the government would abide by
Poland’s international obligations within the Warsaw Pact. Moreover, General
Jaruzelski remained President and Commander in Chief of the armed forces and
had the constitutional power to dissolve the Parliament, to dismiss the government
and invoke a state of emergency. So, until shortly after the breaching of the
Berlin Wall, things were not irreversible in Poland had a change of leadership
occurred in Moscow, for instance.
Earlier in the summer of 1989, the situation was evolving
in a different manner in Hungary, but in a way that was considered as favourable
among Gorbachev’s entourage. There, the communist party was preparing to transform
itself, officially and formally, into a social-democratic party, in order to
be in a better position to face a free election due to take place the next year.
In this respect, things were going much farther than the Polish Roundtable agreements.
But the situation was better for the Hungarian Party than it was for its Polish
counterpart. Indeed, according to reliable polls taken in the summer of 1989,
the reforming Hungarian party was expected to receive close to 40% of the vote
in a free election, with its closest competitors receiving less than 20%. So,
it was expected that it would remain, at least for a few years, the pivotal
force of Hungarian political life. Moreover the leading Communist reformer,
Imre Poszgay, was widely expected to win a Presidential election. In the USSR,
Gorbachev personally was not yet prepared to accept party pluralism in the USSR
itself, but the issue was already being privately discussed in the Kremlin,
and the Soviet leadership saw its implementation in Hungary as a positive experiment.
Soviet acceptance of the Polish and Hungarian course considerably enhanced East-West
mutual trust as Gorbachev had anticipated. As a result of the growing level
of confidence, Gorbachev expected that in order to maintain it, the US and Western
powers would exert a moderating influence in Eastern Europe. This is exactly
what happened in the summer of 1989. During a visit to Poland and Hungary, US
President Bush promised economic assistance to both, and preached moderation
and prudence to opposition forces. In private conversations, he expressed confidence
in Jaruzelski and the reformist Hungarian leaders and hoped that they could
keep control of the democratization process, in order not to destabilize Gorbachev
in Moscow. As Gorbachev’s former official spokesman told this writer,
the Soviet leader was confident that with some cooperation with the US, the
USSR wielded enough power and influence to « circumscribe the course of events
in Eastern Europe ». This was still very typical of a Soviet proclivity
to think that events can be controlled and channelled from above and to overestimate
the potential of great power concertation.
After the downfall of Honecker (which he had more or less
discreetely sought) Gorbachev initially thought that with the opening of the
Berlin Wall, on November 9, the Krenz regime would be able to regain the initiative
and to stabilize the situation in the GDR. After a few days it became clear
that this expectation was unfounded. The collapse of the Wall was to be rapidly
followed by the collapse of the regime and of the State itself.
Helmut Kohl was the first to sense all the potentialities
of the situation that was developing. On November 28, he took the whole world
by surprise in making public a plan for German unification. More than the proposition
in itself, it was the context in which it was made that infuriated Gorbachev
and threatened his whole policy and approach. What he envisioned at that time
for inter-German relations was a microcosm of his pan-European project. He wanted
a step-by-step rapprochement between the two German states in a process in which
each East German and Soviet concessions would be met by West German and Western
concessions, in terms of economic assistance, disarmament and security arrangements.
The process was to lead to a « contractual community » between the two German
states, at best a sort of confederation.
That is why he accused Kohl of using his plan to inflame
and destabilize the situation in the GDR for unilateral advantages and refused
to talk of reunification. He sensed that reunification in a context of
disintegration of the East German regime would take place on Western terms and
could call into question the viability of the Warsaw Pact, which was the main
instrument of Soviet influence in European affairs. But Kohl decided to press
for his advantage and calculated that Gorbachev had gone too far in accepting
change in the East to be able backtrack. Events were to prove him right. But
Kohl’s correct calculation needs to be treated with caution. Political
behavior is never completely inevitable. There is always the choice of
making mistakes and going down dead-end roads, and politics allows us to observe
that frequently. This leads us to the great issue of the use of force.
Up to that time, an essential part of Gorbachev’s political capital accrued
from the absence of a recourse to force. The value of that capital rested
on the conviction from the outside that he had the option to use it; hence the
credit of not exercising it, a credit that needed to be nurtured. Another
part of his political capital was based on what he had to offer very concretely.
With regard to both of these questions, the fall of the Berlin Wall was
a crucial turning point, in addition to being a great moment in history.
In the weeks that followed, Gorbachev’s partners became convinced, or were willing
to wager, that he could no longer use force, and simultaneously recognized that
what he had to offer in terms of East-European liberalization was slipping out
of his hands.
The crumbling of the GDR, which proved to be the keystone
of the entire East European system, gave a formidable push to events throughout
the region. The fragile political equilibria achieved in Poland and Hungary
were battered and it was Eastern Europe, in its entirety, that finally hurled
itself through the Berlin Wall. This spelled the end of the triumphant phase
of Gorbachev’s foreign policy. The disappointments were accumulating faster
than the benefits.
Gorbachev could have tried to balance controlled democratization
with some degree of repression. But he estimated that the use of force could
ruin the European policy in which he had invested so much. He also determined
that it could spell the end perestroïka and of all that he had achieved
To use force is one thing. Threatening to use it is another.
In 1991, when the USSR itself was going in the direction of disintegration,
Gorbachev threatened to use force to stop the process on several occasions.
But he never brought himself to do so in a decisive manner. That was both
his great historical merit and his political tragedy. As for what interests
us here directly, it is remarkable that even the threat of using force, or simply
a show of force, was never used to slow down an evolution that after November
28, was deemed to be harmful.
One small fact is very revelatory in this regard.
Only a few days after Kohl’s speech to the Bundestag on 28 November, the Malta
summit between President Bush and Gorbachev took place. A meeting had
been planned between Gorbachev and the other Warsaw Pact leaders after the summit,
so that he could report on its results. By confidential, diplomatic channels,
Krenz and Modrow, the new GDR’s leaders, had proposed holding the meeting in
Berlin. In a note to Gorbachev, one of his top aides, G. Shakhnazarov
advised him to decline the invitation, claiming that, under the circumstances
of events in Berlin, a Warsaw Pact summit there « would be seen as a type of
show of force. » The meeting took place in Moscow.
Soviet behavior, given the nature and importance of the stakes and the
objectives it was pursuing in Europe, did, in fact, make the use of force very
difficult in the autumn of 1989. But for the Soviet leaders to avoid even
indirect shows of force indicates that the « taboo » or the active ideological
role of the non-use of force as a deliberate political instrument had acquired
The grand international and European design, though in
great trouble after November 1989, was pursued with obstinacy. This time however,
it was done by trying to slow down, rather than accelerating the course of events,
and with declining means. Gorbachev still counted on the importance of the USSR’s
power and international role as he thought it was appreciated by his Western
interlocutors. He relied on their goodwill and the extraordinary proofs of good
behaviour he was giving them. They did make some efforts to assist him,
but they could hardly put the ground that was slipping away, back under his
Rarely in history have we witnessed the policy of a great
power continue, throughout so many difficulties and reversals, to be guided
by a such an idealistic view of the world, based on universal reconciliation,
and in which the image of the enemy was constantly blurring, to the point of
making it practically disappear as the enemy.
Let us again guard here against thinking that the Soviet
leadership did not have other options and that its policy was somehow the inevitable
product of the impasses in which the USSR found itself. If Gorbachev’s
policy could be considered by some as a desperate adventure, history provides
too many examples of impasses which led to adventures, or simply policies, that
were of a completely different nature. Indeed, that is why the world did
not cease, between 1987 and 1991, to be surprised by Soviet foreign policy.
This is not, of course, to say that this policy was the
product of chance. As we have mentioned, it was a social-democratic transformation
that the Soviet leadership underwent, under impulses from an intellectual elite
that had already been largely « social-democratized. » This « social democratisation »
is far from being an accident in the history of Marxist, and later Leninist,
parties. It has been a result of the quasi-permanent relative success
of parliamentary democracy and the liberal economy, and of their capacity to
adapt. From the beginning of the century, reformism began to win over
revolutionary parties based on Marxism. The polarization resulting from
the apparition of Leninist parties contributed to accentuating the process.
To the extent that one of the main reasons for their coming into existence was
the struggle against social democracy’s evolution, the Leninist parties’ conversion
to « social-democratization » was much slower to come. In the West, the
most remarkable case was that of the Italian Communist Party. In the East,
it first won over the most European of the Communist Parties in power, those
of Poland and Hungary in 1956, and of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The process
there had been interrupted, as we know, by Soviet pressure or military intervention.
While there was nothing inevitable about the moment that it took place, the
USSR’s leading party finally enlisted « social-democratization » to help lead
it out of its impasses and bring it closer to Europe.
The critical phase of a Communist Party’s social-democratic
transition is often the one marked by the strongest dose of political idealism,
and this is not a matter of chance. Initially, the social-democratic change
is rarely recognized as such by those who are engaging in it. Shaped by
a global, articulated vision of the world and social processes, as well as imbued
with an heroic mission, a Leninist Party cannot abandon its old standards without
pursuing new, more promising objectives that are as mobilizing as those which
have become out of reach or discredited. Without being completely abandoned,
these are continually diluted into new « syntheses, » seen as being both promising
and new. This explains the PCI’s proposed « historic compromise » of the
1970s which was supposed to fundamentally transform Italy’s political life and
put it on a qualitatively new track, very different from a banal social democratization.
In the same way, the Prague Spring intended to reconcile socialism and democracy,
the plan and the market, into a new synthesis which would renew the attractiveness
of socialism. The project of European and global reconciliation put forward
by the USSR in 1988 and 1989 was all the more impressive since it came from
a nuclear superpower, and was centred precisely on disarmament.
Paradoxically, despite these messianic ambit-ions, which
were indeed pursued with determination and conviction, it was still essentially
a more or less rapid process of adaptation which they covered and that accompanied
them. That is why the world view and the vision of social processes which
were articulated should be called a transitional ideology. For Gorbachev
and his circle, the socialist idea became constantly more open, elastic and
eclectic. The following is an extraordinary illustration: At the beginning
of December 1989, after Kohl’s famous speech and while the Czechoslovak regime
was crumbling, Gorbachev recalls in his Memoirs that he had met with Nicolae
Ceausescu and told him that « the process we were living through at the moment
had a clearly democratic character, despite all of its contradictions and the
pain it was engendering. Due to this fact, there was no reason to fear
the collapse or the end of socialism. » This writer asked Gorbachev, if
he really believed at that time that reformed socialism still had a chance in
East Europe or if it had been statement of convenience for his interlocutor.
He answered: « Yes, at that moment, we believed that the guarantee of real freedom
of choice and of real sovereignty in Central and East Europe would act in favour
of socialism. »
A last word on the inevitability of what happened in 1989
may be in order. There is no doubt that the deepest tendency was toward the
dismantling of the Eastern European regimes; but not necessarily in the
form of such a precipitated disaster for the Soviet Union, as the one which
occurred . Gorbachev has frequently been reproached for not having acted rapidly
and decisively enough to impose reform on the conservative East European regimes.
One could argue that more interventionist action would have only accelerated
their collapse. Perhaps. However, in the case of Czechoslovakia,
a reevaluation of the Prague Spring by Moscow, which Gorbachev had constantly
been advised to undertake, would have almost immediately caused the Czech Party
to do the same, and would have brought Dubcek and the 1968 leaders back into
the circles of power. Even in 1989, it seems certain that they would have easily
won free elections. There would have been, therefore, a regime in Prague for
several years with a social-democratic orientation, much more in tune with Gorbachev’s
foreign policy. The same is true for the GDR, where a Roundtable and election,
had they taken place in 1988, would have undoubtedly meant a considerably different
course of events. We may recall that the opposition groups which existed
at the time were in favour of preserving a « social-democratized » GDR, and remained
so until the end of 1989. The logic of dismantling the old regime would
still have without a doubt, led to reunification. It would have happened
less hurriedly, though. Moreover, even an SPD victory in the East German elections
of March 1991 would have slowed down the process. It is clear that a slower,
precisely more controlled, reunification would have taken place under conditions
more favourable for Soviet policy.
In short, a somewhat slower transition in Prague and Berlin,
which a more activist Soviet policy could have supported, would have allowed
Gorbachev to better push ahead with his European policy. His prospects
were excellent in the summer of 1989. What he lacked was time, and
above all a minimal stability of the alliance on which he relied to advance
it. Certainly, such an ambitious and messianic project could not have
been realized in its totality. But, albeit messianic and ambitious, this project
was far from being devoid of realism and corresponded to political aspirations
that had currency in West and East. It is often only after the fact —
after the failure — that the illusions turn out to have been just that.
Therefore, was it illusory to expect Mazowiecki’s Poland to remain in the Warsaw
Pact? It was essentially the precipitance of German reunification which
led to its dissolution, without the Pact being replaced by anything else.
Leninism’s departure from the European stage could have
left a more solid European order in its wake, one that would have been worthy
of the historic occasion which 1989 represented. The question of a new
order remains on the agenda and still awaits its solution.
Undoubtedly, however, the most important fact remains that
Leninism left the stage so peacefully. This remains the most remarkable
event of 1989, a masterpiece of History and a legacy of hope for the future