Chris Harman, Simon Terry & Andy Zebrowski

Crisis in Eastern Europe

The national time bomb

From Socialist Worker Review, No.111, July/August 1988, p.14.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE MOST explosive problem Gorbachev faces is nationalist unrest throughout the USSR. In recent weeks the demonstrations have become larger and the demands more militant

The widespread nature of this unrest is the most worrying problem for Gorbachev. It is first of all a result of the ability of thousands of people to demonstrate after sixty years of Great Russian chauvinist repression. But in some areas it is also encouraged by Gorbachev’s perestroika.

The historian Zhores Medvedev explained why at a meeting in London on 27 June. Gorbachev’s stress on the profitability of enterprises, rather than target allocation from the centre, will lead to a growing differential between those regions where profitable plants exist and those where they do not. This differential will accelerate the moves for economic autonomy in the Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

This is not, of course, Gorbachev’s intention. To compete internationally production in the USSR needs to be integrated across the republics. This explains why Abel Aganbegyan, the leading perestroika economist, was quoted in Le Monde sharply criticising the autonomy demands. But it may well be that the local republican bureaucracies will see their interests diverging from Moscow, especially under pressure from mass movements.

On 16 June Tass reported that Karl Vaino, the Estonian party leader, had been sacked after ten years in office. He was replaced by Vaino Vyalas who has spent time in Moscow under Gorbachev’s wing.

Gorbachev clearly wanted to defuse the growing unrest. The week before Karl Vaino was removed the Estonian party paper announced plans by “Estonians” to set up a Popular Front political movement which would exclude party officials.

The week before the conference tens of thousands saw off the delegates shouting, “Bring independence back with you from Moscow,” sang the national anthem and waved Estonian flags, which have been officially re-introduced by the government of the republic.

A party organised meeting of 100,000 at the great choral stadium “mandated” the delegates to demand economic autonomy in two years and for the USSR to be a loose federation of free republics. Vyalas called the resolutions that were passed at the rally “a unique document discussed by the whole people”, showing that Vyalas, even though he is Gorbachev’s man, cannot divorce himself from the pressure building up from below.

In Latvia thousands marched in Riga singing the banned national anthem and waving the officially banned national red-white-red flags. They were commemorating the deportation of 15,000 Latvians in 1941.

The Latvians are a minority in the Latvian republic which has a population of 2.5 million. The demonstrators demanded a ban on Russian speaking labour and want Latvian as the official language.

Gorbachev could try to head off this unrest by allowing symbolic reforms that don’t cost anything. But such reforms are dangerous because they increase confidence for more radical demands.

The most serious unrest facing Gorbachev is in Nagorno Karabakh. From 23 May there was a general strike in the region. According to Basil Karlinsky in the French paper Liberation the strike was sparked when news of an exchange at the Azerbaijan CC plenum was leaked.

Ligachev, who was delegated to the plenum from the Politburo in Moscow, was asked by Borossian, the secretary of the Karabakh party, “How do you see the national future of Nagorno Karabakh?” Ligachev answered, “The future is settled. Forget all that.”

The strike inspired huge demonstrations in Armenia when the republic’s supreme soviet voted on 15 June to support the reunification of the Karabakh. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were outside the building when the decision was taken.

On 17 June the supreme soviet of Azerbaijan voted to keep Nagorno Karabakh. The conflict between the republican governments is reflected on the ground. Azers in Armenia and Armenians in Azerbaijan have been kicked out of their homes and jobs. Nevertheless, the dominant message of the Karabakh events to the other nationalities in the USSR is to encourage militant action and strikes.

On 18 June on the Black Sea coast 5,000 Tatars struck demanding that the Crimea be made their independent homeland. A few days later on 26 June 20,000 Tatar demonstrators were violently dispersed by “security forces” in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan. A quarter of a million Tatars had been deported by Stalin to Uzbekistan at the end of the Second World War.

Exactly a month into the Karabakh strike Pravda reported:

“It would appear on the surface as if the situation could not get any worse but every day the Armenian population of Stepanakert (capital of Nagorno Karabakh), as if under the influence of mass hypnosis, leave their homes to attend meetings and demonstrations.”

Gorbachev is claiming the worst is now over. But he said the same after the strikes and demonstrations in February. Liberation has reported that Armenians have received arms from state arsenals. He must fear that an armed struggle could develop—a Northern Ireland in the Caucasus. Gorbachev has already sent in the troops. Perhaps he is going to order them to start shooting.

Last updated on 15 April 2010