Here are three short extracts from articles published between 1989 and 1992 in The International Spectator , the English-language magazine of the Istituto Affari Internazionali, dedicated to the internal and international impact of the new course of Soviet politics initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev. The selection of the texts is curated by Leo Goretti, co-Editor of The International Spectator.
1989: Gorbachev’s bet ( by Roberto Aliboni-Gianni Bonvicini-Cesare Merlini-Stefano Silvestri )
When the Soviet scholar Bogomolov , speaking on January 30, 1989 at the Institute of International Affairs, stated that the USSR was ready to accept the internal and foreign autonomy of the countries of Eastern Europe, it was impossible to fully understand the extent to which his words. they were anticipating the events to come.
The political revolution taking place in Eastern Europe, with the end of the hegemony of the communist parties, was allowed and to some extent encouraged by Gorbachev, in an extreme attempt to save the economy and national integrity of the Soviet Union. […]
The problem of pluralism in the Soviet Union , unlike in Eastern European countries, is of ethnic-national origin. But it also has a political foundation: the Party has lost credibility. It is unlikely that these two movements towards pluralism could advance simultaneously without leading to the uncontrolled collapse of the Soviet system. It is easy to understand why Gorbachev is trying to minimize the connections between the reforms in the USSR and the international crisis. […]
Mikhail Gorbachev’s bet is to let the events taking place in the former satellite states of the Warsaw Pact take their course, once the constraints of Soviet hegemony are removed, in the hope that the resulting political vacuum will not be occupied by the West [… ]
In short, Gorbachev is trying to prevent the crumbling of the Soviet bloc’s old sphere of influence and political and ideological homogeneity from interfering with the maintenance of the Soviet system of alliance and security.
1990: towards the end of the empire? ( by Marco Carnovale )
The main feature of [Gorbachev’s] ‘ new thinking ‘ in Soviet internal affairs has been an attempt to mobilize the repressed potential of the population by allowing an unprecedented level of political participation while seeking to maintain centralized control of the ongoing process. In foreign policy, the main connotation of the ‘new thinking’ is represented by the explicit recognition (i) of the insufficiency of military means in order to obtain security and of the fact that political and economic ties are the most important; (ii) the interdependence of States in the field of security . […]
An important issue for the West is whether Gorbachev’s ‘new thinking’ implies, or requires, the end of the ideological character of the Soviet state […]
Can the Russian Empire exist if communism is abandoned in favor of democracy? The answer is bound to be negative: a coercive empire dominated by force would be incompatible with the values of humanism, self-determination and the rule of law which are the basis of ‘new thinking’. But, when Moscow gives up the military tool, there will be nothing (political, ideological, religious or economic) to hold the empire together except the free will of its members.
Will Gorbachev, after withdrawing from Eastern Europe, be able to survive the disintegration of the empire built by the Russians first under the tsars and then under Stalin, in order to achieve perestroika ? It is possible, but it is an operation destined to be dangerous. Regardless of the outcome, there is an inescapable dilemma between unity and reform, and a final choice between the two has yet to be made.
If, as seems plausible, the choice is made in favor of reformism , how will the empire dissolve? Will it do it like the British Empire, with a relatively elegant retreat, or rather like the French one, with the center fighting for every inch of territory? Or will it resemble the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, with a gradual but inexorable remodeling of the borders that will ultimately reduce the empire to its ethnic core? Or will we just manage an inevitable decline towards oblivion?
1991: the dissolution of the USSR ( by Marco Carnovale )
Many scholars, inside and outside the Soviet Union, had long ago sounded the alarm about the possibility of a return to power of the conservatives supported by the military, the KGB, the state bureaucracy and the apparatus of the Communist Party of the Union. Soviet (CPSU), or rather from the bastions of traditional Soviet power that most of all had to lose from the transformations of Gorbachev. […] It was precisely because of this danger that, starting in 1988, the West had worked to strengthen Gorbachev’s political weight and personal career and ensure that he lasted as long as possible. He was praised for his political vision and great courage, as well as for the successes of his foreign policy. […]
Western support for Gorbachev was useful support until the fall / winter of 1989/90, that is, until Gorbachev (despite his growing unpopularity) managed to argue that there was no alternative to his ‘centrist’ reform program – something that he never tired of repeating. In reality, as early as 1989, there was an alternative: the restoration of the old order , which most people – both inside and outside the Soviet Union – feared. […] In such circumstances, Western support strengthened Gorbachev’s internal political influence.
By the winter of 1990, however, successes in foreign policy were no longer sufficient to slow the collapse of Gorbachev’s domestic popularity and support. Economic perestroika – the attempt to keep the old communist system alive with random injections of capitalism – had clearly failed. Nostalgia for the bare minimum guaranteed by the old system was growing among the masses. But for the first time in Soviet (or Russian) history, an alternative to restoration was looming on the horizon: the abandonment of communism , supported by the one who was fast becoming the most popular politician in the country, Boris Yeltsin.