Although ample literature exists that provides a detailed background evaluation of the demise of the Warsaw Pact and of the Eastern Bloc itself, the obvious question remains why Gorbachev implemented and then pursued his radical policy, both with regard to foreign relations with the West and in Eastern Europe, as well as domestically.
Suggestions that Gorbachev simply had no idea what he was doing are most certainly incorrect, aside from amounting to crass oversimplification. Gorbachev might not have realized quite how far his novel approach would take both Europe and his own country, but his stalwart persistence even in face of unprecedented changes in Eastern Europe only confirmed his deep conviction that what he was doing was historically necessary.
Looking at the primary sources from this period sheds much-needed light on the mindset of a man who changed the map of Europe, and indeed the world – all without much bloodshed. His speech before the Sofia Political Consultative Committee Meeting on October 22, 1985 is especially instructive. In his succinct presentation, Gorbachev made clear that he thought only two possible alternatives existed in the state of affairs between the superpowers: either the arms race would be allowed to continue and inevitably end up in nuclear catastrophe, or it would be stopped. In the big picture, he decided to prevent the worst, even at the price of making concessions that appeared to all as weakness, including to the “enemy” as well as many of his own political advisors.
This conviction that historical forces push humanity towards a disaster when serious military tensions are permitted to persist, together with a sense of responsibility exceeding the imperatives of his own ego, prodded Gorbachev to undertake radical policy changes none of his predecessors or contemporaries thought necessary or desirable or had the courage to even contemplate seriously. His responsibility as a leader was reflected also in an array of internal reforms that loosened the totalitarian noose created by previous Soviet administrations and set free forces of history even he did not quite expect at the time of his actions. One explanation for his introduction of perestroika and glasnost that had momentous reverberations in the Soviet Union and especially throughout Eastern Europe was that Gorbachev genuinely believed in communism and its ultimate superiority over capitalism. In this context, the amply documented empirical disasters of a planned economy appeared to be only a side effect of distortions of the system, one that was amenable to correction through reforms. As an unusually educated leader, he still did not realize that the peoples of socialist republics, having been kept in inherent poverty and ignorance for generations, would indeed vote with their stomachs: the glittering allure of capitalist abundance overshadowed whatever internal problems Soviet propaganda was addressing.
Like other speeches of Gorbachev, the Sofia address displays a decisive and marked departure from the usual propaganda platitudes of all previous Soviet leaders. To be sure, some propaganda rhetoric remained, but his speech was a powerful presentation by a man with an inspired vision and a plan. This is in stark contrast also with the rhetoric of Reagan during a private meeting in Geneva on November 19, 1985. Gorbachev’s eloquence in attempting to present his ideas for cooperation and the rationale behind them clashed with Reagan’s propagandistic platitudes. Reagan appeared to be trying hard to end the private meeting and let his advisors do the talking. It seems clear that Reagan, unlike Gorbachev, neither had a plan as to how to improve East-West relations, nor did he think it necessary in the first place, and he did not even give much thought to the international situation then unfolding. His solution to international tensions really seemed to have been the one pushed in almost all its facets by the industrial-military complex: increased militarization of international politics and pointing ever bigger guns at the enemy, or whoever stood in the path of U.S. interests. From this vantage point, Gorbachev’s emphasis on political solutions to international tensions and on the inefficiency of deterrence as a basis for stability takes on a meaning of moral and intellectual superiority over Reagan’s simplistic approach based on threats and accusations. One example of this stark contrast was Reagan’s treatment of the Third World, where he dismissed humanitarian issues in the region that were being addressed by Gorbachev by accusing the Soviet Union of aggressive expansionism, conveniently forgetting the U.S.’ own covert and overt military and economic interventions, sometimes in blatant violation of all much-vaunted principles of democratic self-determination of sovereign countries.
Gorbachev’s push for disarmament as the necessary and likely only possible way to avoid inescapable eventual disaster necessitated a novel approach to East-West relations: as he stressed in Geneva, he studied U.S. politics, especially Reagan’s own speeches, to enable himself to access the mentality that controlled U.S. foreign policy. In the process, he must have discovered that the U.S. as a whole was simply terrified of that mysterious communist giant, and that its excessive militarization and confrontational dialectics were a response to those deep-rooted fears. Unilateral military reductions and lopsided compromises, not to mention military disclosures, were thus Gorbachev’s brilliant psychological tool to disarm a scared superpower wielding ever more dangerous nuclear weapons. Of course, such an approach was in itself a dangerous gamble that could well have backfired: the U.S. could, theoretically at least, have used its momentary military superiority to preemptively attack the Soviet Union or its vital, non-negotiable interests abroad. But such measure was incompatible with one basic assumption of both superpowers dating back to the origins of the Cold War: that it was the other side that would start World War Three.
Gorbachev’s arms reduction policies also earned him broad sympathies among the Western European Allies, who were much more concerned about the economic and humanitarian costs of continued East-West tensions and potential conflicts than was the US that was safely ensconced on another continent and far more self-sufficient in economic terms. Just as the interests of NATO’s European members started to diverge openly from those of their lead superpower, the abandonment of the Brezhnev Doctrine by Gorbachev resulted in an independentization of Eastern Europeans as their own interests started, in turn, to diverge more openly from those of the Soviet Union.
This fundamental change in East-West relations was also exemplified by the approach of the West to communist countries that distanced themselves from the Soviet Union. While support of Yugoslavia by the Western Allies can be explained by their preference for the relative liberalization of its indigenous version of communism, thus creating a model of communism with a human face that could be promoted as an example for the more rigid variants of communism, U.S. support for harsh and extreme forms of dictatorship such as the one in Romania flew in the face of all its propagandist commitment to “principles of democracy and human rights.” The conventional wisdom that your enemy’s enemy is our friend is no sufficient basis for action when one of the sides claims moral superiority, which formed a large part of U.S. propaganda. This was especially true when Romania, in spite of its enduring quibbles with the Soviet Union and its other partners in the Warsaw Pact, remained within both Warsaw Pact and Eastern Bloc, thus deriving benefits from both communist and capitalist worlds willing to close their eyes to the domestic policy outrages that Ceausescu’s regime felt empowered to pursue. For example, when Bulgaria’s Zhivkov and post-Zhivkov governments introduced policies of “ethnic homogeneity” by forcing ethnic Turks to assimilate or relocate abroad, Western humanitarian institutions raised a resounding outcry alleging violations of fundamental human rights. When far worse ethnic discrimination took place in Romania, Ceausescu was applauded for “reforms” by Western powers. This double standard in dealing with the East persisted throughout Cold War, détente, and post-détente; and yet, after the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc, Western powers lost all significant interest in supporting countries such as Romania whose only political value was its tradition of slight opposition to the Soviet Union.
The question of why exactly the Eastern Bloc, and eventually also the Soviet Union, disintegrated, is still an open question. It appears to me that the endemic inefficiency of the system combined with a loosening of historical repression – the only grip the communists had on their peoples – caused the inevitable self-dissolution of an entirely artificial and inherently unstable political system. This development was accelerated by Gorbachev’s novel hands-off policy towards Eastern Europe, where communist dictatorships had been largely introduced and kept in place by Stalin’s show of force. By introducing glasnost and perestroika, Gorbachev deprived himself of the indispensable tools that had kept communism in place throughout its existence: the artificial form of government persisted due to its own rigidity, wherein opportunists found their own place and supported a system that gave them power and relative material benefits. Abandoning systemic secrecy and the tight grip of inherently undemocratic police control on the population was the most important factor that allowed the people to have it their way: economic inferiority was ultimately merely a catalyst determining how far the self-liberated nations would secede from communism as a model. In the case of countries with relatively high economic standards, such as Czechoslovakia and Hungary, there was not as much push for dramatic reforms as there was, say, in East Germany with its population jarred by the blatant and palpable contrast of their poverty and the wealth of their Western brothers, or in Poland where people were driven to despair by escalating cycles of hyperinflation and food shortages. In Romania, on the other hand, where the population had reached a point close to fatal famine, dramatic revolution was suspended even as a notion because of the persistent reign of terror by an ubiquitous secret police that quashed any attempts at voicing discontent with bullets and more insidious persecution. Even after Ceausescu’s death, the faction that rose to power was a mere splinter group off the old Communist party block, and it left the old structures in place as long as possible, at first changing the existing system only nominally.
As an interesting side effect of the fall of communism in Europe, the new political elites were largely spawned by their predecessors: communists were introduced to the government first as a compromise deemed necessary during a period of transition, while they participated later in democratically elected governments posing as members of opposition parties or as communist reformers now renamed “socialists.” It is most telling that, in light of the fact that non-communist politicians simply had never existed under the old one-party system, “post-communist” societies had little choice but to rely on the old cadres and elites supplemented by a medley of non-professional politicians, such as union activists (the electrician Lech Wałęsa comes to mind) or nationally revered dissenters like the playwright Vaclav Havel. Eastern Europe had to wait for an entire new generation to grow up outside the communist system in order to produce its own indigenous professional political cadres.