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The Soviet Union Brokeup In December 1991 - Why And How? | R G Gidadhubli

Friday 7 January 2022


by R.G.Gidadhubli *

The former Soviet Union, the second Super Power in the world legally ceased to exist on the 31st December 1991, even as the Soviet flag was brought down in Kremlin in Moscow on the 25th December 1991. While 30 years have passed and the disintegration of the USSR has become a part of history, it is relevant and worth examining as to why and how disintegration took place. From my perspective, there were external and internal factors that played significant role that led to the breakup of the former Soviet Union. An effort has been made to highlight major factors, causes and significant events that led to the breakup of the former Soviet Union that played a significant role in the world as the leader of the Communist Ideology and Communist System for about 8 decades.

Fall of Berlin Wall And End of Warsaw Pact

Among external factors, the end of the Cold War Era, Fall of the Berlin Wall and the End of Warsaw Pact Treaty have played major impact on the breakup of the former Soviet Union. By the middle of the 1980’s, the cold war began to thaw across Eastern Europe. That seems to have played an important role for the Fall of the Berlin Wall on 9th November 1989 which was a symbol that had divided East Germany and West Germany for few decades after the Second World War paving the way for socio-political and cultural renaissance in Europe. Apart from that, a few East European countries had witnessed democratic movements, which was evident from the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and Prague Spring in 1968. Because people in many East European countries started protesting against their own governments which had adopted the Soviet system of Communist ideology, Central control and Authoritarian governance and Centralized and Controlled Economy for several decades. Moreover, many leaders of the East European countries were aware, uncomfortable and concerned that they were not democratic and that they were lagging far behind in economic development and modern technology as compared to their Western neighbors. Apart from that they felt that they were suppressed by the former Soviet Union under Warsaw Pact Treaty through military force. These perceptions were evident from the fact that as opined by analysts when Brezhnev was the President of the former Soviet Union, followed by Andropov and Chernenko, the Soviet Style socialism was imposed on the East European States, restricting freedom of action in domestic and international affairs. In fact Brezhnev applied the Warsaw Pact Treaty that was a political and military alliance established in May 1955 between the former Soviet Union and several East European countries which had adopted Socialist System. Hence since the Cold War Era ended, there was a strong opinion that there was no security threat from the West and hence Warsaw Pact Treaty was redundant. In fact Mikhail Gorbachev who came to power in the former Soviet Union in 1985, terminated the Warsaw Pact Treaty.

Internal Factors

Mr. Mikhail Gorbachev came to power as the president of the former Soviet Union in 1985. There were several internal factors that were responsible for the breakup of the former Soviet Union. At the outset it is important to know what policy measures he undertook and how far he succeeded in implementing them and why he failed.

Firstly, Gorbachev was aware of the fact that the USSR was facing several serious problems — the domination of political bureau, central control by the Communist Party, economic stagnation and corruption. He was unhappy that the administration had failed to address many of these critical issues and problems.

Secondly, realizing problems persisting in the country, Gorbachev took bold a decision to initiate the well known historic, which also became highly controversial, policy of Restructuring (Perestroika) and Openness (Glasnost). In essence Gorbachev sought to restructure the political process of the Soviet Union into a less centralized state. Hence in 1987–88 he pushed through economic reforms that went less than halfway to the creation of a semi-free market system. Thus he decided to bring about major reforms for political and economic developments in the Soviet Union. Being concerned about the state of political and economic issues facing the country, Gorbachev came to the conclusion that deeper structural changes were necessary.

Thirdly, as opined by analysts, Gorbachev decided to abandon the oppressive and expensive Brezhnev Doctrine. Hence with the best of intentions he wanted to solve political and economic problems facing the country. In March 1991 as a part of political reforms for reducing over centralization of power in Kremlin and giving more powers to 15 Republics, Gorbachev launched an all-union referendum possibly with the aim of retaining the future of Soviet Federation. But not being content, leaders of Russia and several other republics added some supplementary questions. In fact as opined by analysts, many communist leaders in the Soviet Union including Mr. Boris Yeltsin who were used to enjoy Central Control opposed reforms initiated by Gorbachev. Moreover it is important to know that when Gorbachev took office, Yegor Ligachev was made head of the party’s Central Committee Secretariat, one of the two main centers of power (with the Politburo) in the Soviet Union. But in reality Ligachev subsequently became one of Gorbachev’s opponents, making it difficult for Gorbachev to use the party apparatus to implement his views on perestroika. This shows Communist Party had become Weak.

Fourthly, Gorbachev launched Glasnost (Openness) as the second vital plank of his reform efforts. Because with the best of intentions he believed that the opening up of the political system—essentially, democratizing it—was the only way to overcome inertia in the political and bureaucratic apparatus, which had strong interest in maintaining the status quo. In fact Glasnost also allowed the media more freedom of expression, and editorials complaining of depressed conditions and of the government’s inability to correct them began to appear.

Fifth, despite all efforts of Gorbachev, the Soviet Union collapsed with dramatic speed in the last quarter of 1991. This was evident from the fact that in several Republics of the former Soviet Union, following developments in East European countries, there was growing interest and priority for the spirit of nationality rather than being part of the Soviet Union. In 1986 and 1987, Latvia had been in the vanguard of the Baltic States in pressing for reform. In 1988 Estonia took over the lead role with the foundation of the Soviet Union’s first popular front and starting to influence state policy. Hence in reality in 1988 Gorbachev started losing control of two regions of the Soviet Union, as the Baltic republics were now leaning towards independence, Georgia and Armenia among the Caucasus States descended into violence and civil war. Hence it became evident from the fact that by then political chaos reached to the extent that the 3 Baltic Republics namely Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania wanted to become separate and independent from the Soviet Union (as it had happened in the case of breakup of Czechoslovakia –as Czech Republic and Slovak Republic in 1989).

Sixth, most significantly on the 8th December 1991 the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus proclaimed the Soviet Union had ceased to exist and announced the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) as a looser association to take its place. They also invited other republics of the former Soviet Union to join the CIS. Thus Ukraine was the first among other republics which wanted to secede from the Union between August and December 1991. Being upset with these events, Gorbachev called them an unconstitutional coup.

Seventh, as regards other issues namely security and economy, Gorbachev was aware that the defense burden, perhaps equivalent to about 25- 30 percent of the gross national budget for several decades was crippling the country. This had led to cuts in expenditures in education, social services, and medical care, which hurt the regime’s domestic legitimacy. Hence he wanted to reduce the share of state budget on defense. But in reality many heads of Soviet Defense establishment were against Gorbachev’s intended policy to reduce state budget for defense sector. Apart from that as opined by analysts many heads of the KGB were also against Gorbachev Reforms, possibly concerned about security issues. The impact of these developments was evident from the fact that in August 1991 the coup was carried out by hard-line Communist Party officials, KGB and military officials attempting to avert a new liberalized union treaty and they were keen for the return to the old-line party values.

Eighth, the consequences of Restructuring through Perestroika and radical economic reforms in One-Stroke in the form of a semi-mixed economy had contradictions and brought economic chaos and crisis to the country and resulted in great unpopularity to Gorbachev, much against his expectations. In fact Gorbachev’s radical economists, headed by Grigory A. Yavlinsky, opined and advised Gorbachev that Western-style reforms required a true market economy which was not prevailing in the Soviet Union.

Ninth, it needs to be mentioned that although Soviet industry was one of the largest in the world, it was also very not efficient and expensive to support. The Soviet State Controlled Industry which was heavily geared towards defense and heavy industrial products for over seven decades and whose conversion to light- and consumer-based industries would require much time. Moreover, Soviet industrial workforce trained under Communist Ideology and system, though highly educated, did not have the necessary skills to work in a market environment. Thus in the process, the outcome was Gorbachev could not succeed in making the jump from the command economy to a mixed economy. There was sharp decline in economic growth and consumer goods sector industries were not able to perform and meet the basic needs of the people. Hence as the Soviet economic problems became more serious (e.g., rationing was introduced for some basic food products for the first time since Stalin).

Tenth by the end of September 1991, Gorbachev no longer had the ability to influence events outside of Moscow. He was challenged even by Boris Yeltsin, who had begun taking over what remained of the Soviet government, including the Kremlin. As reported by some analysts, there were strong differences between Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin even as Gorbachev brought him to power and appointed him as leader of Russian Federation.

As stated by analysts Yeltsin virtually banned the Communist Party in Russia and seized all of its property. As reported by some commentators situation was serious to the extent that Gorbachev was under House Arrest in Crimea for several days. This was partly an indication of the political chaos prevailing in the Soviet Union or partly for his security. By December 1991 as opined by some political analysts, there was no longer any reasonable doubt that, as the preamble of the Accords put it, "the USSR, as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality, is ceasing its existence". Thus in a nationally televised speech in the evening of 25th December 1991, Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union. The Soviet flag in Kremlin was brought down. It took 4 days for legal process to be completed and the Soviet Union ceased to exist on 31st December 1991.

Thus from what is stated above it is evident that the former Soviet Union second Super-Power disintegrated due to several external and internal factors. Gorbachev was rather over-confident and ambitious in implementing his policies of political and economic reforms –Restructuring And Openness— in One Stroke which was not realistic under adverse political pressures and economic crisis conditions prevailing in the former Soviet Union.

* (Author: Dr R.G. Gidadhubli is Professor And Former Director, Center For Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai)

25th December 2021

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