Friday, December 30, 2016

The Soviet Union and Its Successors | The fall of Communism

The fall of Communism
By the early 1980s, the division of Europe between the communist East and the free West appeared permanent. However, the 1980s and 1990s witnessed the total breakdown of communist rule in Eastern Europe. Although some countries looked forward to a prosperous future, political and economic instability prevailed throughout much of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union and Its Successors
At the end of the 1970s, the power of the Soviet Union appeared unshakable to many outside observers. Soviet leaders, however, faced a huge and rapidly growing problem in their country’s inefficient economy. The 1980s brought an attempt at fundamental reform, but the Soviet predicament proved overwhelming. After losing its Eastern European satellites to a wave of democratic reform in the late 1980s, the Soviet Union itself finally disintegrated in 1991.

The Brezhnev years. Leonid Brezhnev led the Soviet Union throughout the 1970s. He proved to be a forceful leader. With the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Brezhnev demonstrated that the Soviet government would tolerate no dissent among its satellite nations in Eastern Europe. He subsequently announced the Brezhnev Doctrine, declaring that the Soviet Union would intervene in any satellite nation that seemed to be moving away from communism. As a result, no satellite government attempted reforms on the scale of the Prague Spring during the Brezhnev years. Brezhnev also cracked down on dissent at home. Basic human rights such as the freedoms of speech, worship, and movement were seriously curtailed in the Soviet Union.

While seeking to crush all opposition both domestically and in the Soviet satellites of Eastern Europe, Brezhnev worked to strengthen his country’s position in the balance of world power. Through detente, he tried to stabilize relations with the United States. The Soviet Union’s continued military buildup and support for anti-Western forces during the Brezhnev years, however, called into question the sincerity of Soviet commitments to peace. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 proved to be the last straw. Relations with the United States had substantially deteriorated by the time Brezhnev died in 1982.

Gorbachev and reform. Many Soviets experienced a decline in their standard of living during the Brezhnev years, and the Soviet economy remained extremely inefficient. Agricultural failures, an inadequate transportation infrastructure, and outmoded factories all contributed to the dire state of the Soviet economy. Heavy military spending compounded the problem severely. The critical need for reform became increasingly apparent and helped to prompt a struggle for power in the Soviet Union following Brezhnev’s death.

At first the old guard made up of Soviet leaders bom before the revolution of 1917 held out. Many of them recognized the need for reform but worried that it might lead to the weakening of the Soviet state. Hoping to improve the economy without endangering the political survival of communism, they named Yuri Andropov, a former head of the secret police, as Brezhnev’s successor. Andropov was in poor health, however, and held office only 15 months. His elderly successor, Konstantin Chernenko, lasted little more than a year. On Chernenko’s death a younger generation of Communist Party leaders finally gained control of the Soviet government.

In 1985 a rising young star in the Politburo, Mikhail Gorbachev, became the new leader of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev came to office with a background in agricultural and economic affairs. He planned nothing less than a complete overhaul of Soviet political and economic systems. He pledged himself to a course of dramatic reforms known as perestroika (per-uh-STROY-kuh), or restructuring, and glasnost (GLAZ-nohst), or openness. Gorbachev relaxed government controls on the economy and eased restrictions on dissent, allowing Soviet citizens a greater freedom to speak their minds and to read whatever they liked. Recognizing the burden that military spending put on the Soviet Union, Gorbachev planned to reduce the armed forces and increase their efficiency. He also sought a way to end the bloody, protracted, and increasingly unpopular Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Gorbachev’s reform-minded attitude won wide acclaim abroad. Relations between the Soviet Union an4 the United States soon began to improve. Gorbachev met several times with President Reagan, and in 1987 the two men signed agreements to keep fewer nuclear weapons of certain types and to limit the production of others. In 1988, Gorbachev told the United Nations that the Soviet Union would soon begin reducing the number of troops it deployed in Eastern Europe, and in the following year he overSaw the full withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan.

At home, however, Gorbachev’s program of reform ran into problems. Results came slowly and were often ineffective. Liberal supporters complained that Gorbachev was proceeding too cautiously. Despite perestroika, consumer goods remained in short supply, and there were shortages in basic necessities, including bread. In 1990, Gorbachev introduced a program to establish a mixed economy one combining private ownership with government control in the Soviet Union, but he soon had to abandon it under pressure from hard-line Communists.

Gorbachev also faced intense criticism from people who worried that he was moving too fast. Many Soviet citizens became discouraged as reforms designed to increase efficiency on the national level seemed only to impose personal hardship. Perestroika represented a drastic change in the way of life to which Soviet citizens were accustomed. No longer did they enjoy guaranteed lifetime employment and secure incomes. As a result, many Soviet citizens questioned the wisdom of Gorbachev’s new policies.

The most serious challenge came in the summer of 1991, when some strictly conservative members of the government and military attempted a coup. They arrested Gorbachev, but Boris Yeltsin, the liberal- minded president of Russia, rallied popular opposition to the coup. The coup ultimately failed after Soviet soldiers refused to carry out orders to eliminate the opposition. Gorbachev’s popularity never recovered, however. Boris Yeltsin emerged from the crisis as the new champion of reform.

The collapse of the Soviet Union. As Gorbachev’s reforms took effect, holding the Soviet Union together became one of the primary challenges facing the Soviet leader. Glasnost helped to fuel tensions among the various nationalities and ethnic groups of the Soviet Union as people began to express opinions that they would previously have kept to themselves. In the late 1980s, ethnic fighting erupted in the predominantly Muslim Soviet republic of Azerbaijan following a territorial dispute with the neighboring and predominantly Christian Soviet republic of Armenia.

After democratic movements swept communist governments in Eastern Europe from power in 1989, some Soviet republics began to demand their own independence. In an attempt to hasten reform, all three Baltic republics Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania legalized non-communist parties, and in they called for secession from the Soviet Union. Gorbachev responded by deploying troops and threatening the republics with economic boycotts. The attempted crackdown backfired, however, prompting angry demonstrations across the Soviet Union and condemnation from abroad.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union soon became a foregone conclusion. Throughout 1991, one republic after another demanded independence. This trend began to move even faster after the failed coup in August 1991. In December, Gorbachev stepped down as president of the Soviet Union. While an amazed world looked on, the Soviet Union ceased to exist at the end of 1991.

Russia under Yeltsin. Led by President Boris Yeltsin, the Russian Federation generally referred to simply as Russia emerged as the largest and most powerful of the newly independent states. During the 1990s, Russia began to make the transition to democracy and an economy based on free enterprise. Many observers believed that the success of that transition depended on the political survival of the reform- minded Yeltsin. Both frequently seemed in doubt in the mid-1990s.

Yeltsin faced numerous challenges. First among them was the state of the economy. During the early 1990s, inflation soared and industrial output plummeted. High unemployment and shortages of food and housing persisted across Russia.

Throughout the 1990s, Yeltsin expressed his personal commitment to liberalization of the Russian economy. Under his leadership, many industries were privatized. Russia increasingly opened its doors to foreign investment. Yeltsin also sought financial assistance from the West, but political disagreements over issues such as Russian arms sales to aggressive states in the Middle East jeopardized such aid.

Economic improvement was slow in coming for Russia. By the late 1990s the Russian economy remained in poor condition. Although a growing class of entrepreneurs enjoyed newfound wealth in Russia, many Russians still suffered severe deprivations as the 1900s drew to a close.

Russia’s persistent economic troubles contributed to political uncertainty. Yeltsin faced several political challenges throughout the 1990s. Early on, he encountered strong hostility in the Russian legislature, which still included many Communists. When Yeltsin tried to dissolve the legislature in 1993, defiant members denounced the move as unconstitutional and declared a new government under Alexander Rutskoi. Yeltsin had the army surround the legislature building in Moscow with tanks, but Rutskoi refused to surrender. Hoping to rally public sympathy and turn the army to his side, Rutskoi called on supporters to seize Moscow’s television station. Yeltsin then ordered the army to open fire. Rutskoi gave up and was arrested.

Yeltsin’s position, however, remained shaky. Ultranationalists and Communists who were opposed to democratic and free-enterprise reform began to win growing support by the mid-1990s. There was also the danger of a coup as the military grew increasingly resentful over low pay and poor living conditions. To appease the growing number of critics, Yeltsin began to appoint conservative leaders to key government positions in place of reformers. Amid questions about his health, Yeltsin faced a formidable challenge in the presidential elections of 1996 from Communists led by Gennady Zyuganov. Only by offering a government post with broad powers to a charismatic former general named Alexander Lebed did Yeltsin manage to cement his re-election.

Groups outside the government also wielded considerable influence in the new Russia. The Orthodox church experienced a general revival. It enjoyed a restoration of property and power that had been lost over several decades of communist rule not always to the liking of democratic reformers. In 1997 the Orthodox church won special status under a new religious law that restricted the activity of non-Orthodox groups such as evangelical Christians in Russia.

A particularly harmful influence on Russian life was the growth of organized crime in the wake of communism’s fall. By 1993, observers estimated that between 3,000 and 4,000 crime gangs dealing in drugs, prostitution, and black-market goods operated in Russia.

Although ethnic Russians make up about 80 percent of the population of the Russian Federation, another pressing problem was separatism among various non- Russian minorities. The most serious case involved a small region in southern Russia called Chechnya. A largely Muslim group, the Chechens had long fought their Russian conquerors. Under the Soviet regime, Stalin had deported the Chechens to Central Asia. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, Chechnya saw an opportunity to gain freedom and declared its independence.

President Yeltsin, however, soon made it clear that Chechnya a region with rich oil resources would not be allowed to break away. In 1994, Yeltsin ordered the Russian army to capture the capital city and put down Chechen resistance. Russia’s brutal war on Chechnya brought international criticism, and Russian forces took heavy casualties. Eventually a compromise was reached, keeping Chechnya within the Russian Republic but granting the region almost complete self-government.

Russia and the world. Russia was not the only successor state to the Soviet Union. The dissolution of the Soviet Union created 14 other independent republics. To coordinate economic and defense policies among the newly-created states, Russia engineered the establishment of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). (See map on opposite page.) Eventually, 12 of the republics joined the CIS. In 1992 the members of the CIS agreed to a mutual security treaty, under which they largely entrusted their defense to Russia. In 1997, except for the three Baltic states, the Russian army had troops deployed in all of the former Soviet republics.

Despite the formation of the CIS, however, relations between Russia and the other republics were often strained in the 1990s. In particular, several points of conflict emerged between Russia and the second largest republic, Ukraine. One such conflict involved the division of former Soviet military resources between Russia and Ukraine. Another matter of conflict concerned the status of predominantly Russian-speaking regions in Ukraine, including the Crimea and the economically vital Don River basin.

In the Caucasus region, where Russia remained particularly active, Russian tactics often appeared heavy-handed. In 1992, Russia incited a rebellion in a northeastern region of the Republic of Georgia. The Georgian government had previously been reluctant to join the Russian-dominated CIS. The rebellion forced Georgia to appeal to Russia for assistance, to join the CIS, and to permit the stationing of Russian troops on its soil.

In the mid-1990s, observers began to express concern that Russia was pursuing an aggressive policy in the former Soviet republics surrounding the oil- rich Caspian basin. These concerns gave rise to suggestions that the eight new nations comprising the Caucasus and former Soviet Central Asia were still effectively dominated by Moscow.

Although Yeltsin’s government, in critical need of economic aid, generally pursued cooperative relations with the West, a number of differences emerged. Considerable progress was made between Russia and the United States in the area of arms limitation and reduction, but disagreements erupted over issues such as expansion of the NATO alliance into Eastern Europe. Many Western leaders expressed concern over the future of the demoralized but still extensive Russian military especially about the security of Russia’s vast arsenal of nuclear weapons.


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