Chris Harman


Break up of a bloc?

(September 1989)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.123, September 1989, pp.7-8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Continuing unrest among the various nationalities of the USSR presents major problems for Mikhail Gorbachev. The fiftieth anniversary of the seizure of the Baltic states by Stalin has highlighted dissatisfaction with Russian dominance. And moves towards democracy in Hungary now threaten the stability of Russia’s main East European ally, East Germany.
Chris Harman looks at the prospects.

“THE SITUATION which has arisen in the Soviet Baltic republics is giving rise to ever greater alarm. The turn which events are taking there impinges upon the fundamental interests of the whole Soviet people, of the whole of a socialist fatherland ...

“People should know what kind of abyss the nationalist leaders are pushing them towards. Were they to achieve their ends the consequences would be catastrophic for the peoples. The very viability of the Baltic nations could be called into question.”

So asserted the special statement issued by the Central Committee of the CPSU (USSR Communist Party) on 26 August. The phrasing bore an uncanny similarity to that of the warning letter sent by the Brezhnev leadership to the Czechoslovak Communist Party in the early summer of 1968, weeks before the Russian invasion.

The immediate occasion for the Central Committee statement was the massive human chain across all three Baltic states commemorating their seizure by the USSR under the Stalin-Hitler pact of August 1939. But the statement was more than a protest at the demonstrations. It was also a signal that the politburo in Moscow had decided to crack down on the movements among the minority nationalities right across the USSR.

If there were any doubts on the matter, they should have been laid to rest in the days that followed. The Russian media ran a hysterical campaign about what was happening in the Baltic and in Moldavia, on the USSR’s south western border. Central Committee member Georgy Arbatov said that Gorbachev had “personally approved” the Central Committee statement.

The Central Committee statement represents a recognition by the politburo, or at least by the majority of it, that the whole glasnost strategy is falling apart.

Glasnost was originally meant to permit an economic restructuring that would make industry competitive in world terms. But its effect has been to release social forces that have deepened the crisis of the economy, weakened the cohesion of the ruling party and threatened the integrity of the state itself.

The revolts of the minority nationalities, which began only 18 months ago with the first peaceful demonstrations in Armenia, have spread from one national republic to another. This summer has seen repeated mass demonstrations in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, an attempt to set up an illegal governmental structure in the Karabakh, and admissions by the USSR’s ministry of the interior that its troops cannot stop mass demonstrations and strikes in the region, nor the attacks by armed groups.

In Georgia the massacre of nationalist demonstrators in March has created a tide of anti-Russian feeling that has forced the local party leadership to adopt an increasingly nationalist pose, while there are repeated armed conflicts between Georgian and Abkhazian nationalists in the city of Sukhumi. In the Baltic republics the influence of the party leaderships is overshadowed by that of Popular Fronts which are increasingly open in their calls for secession from the USSR. In Soviet Asia nationalist and Islamic movements are increasingly powerful, with armed confrontations in Uzbekhistan and Kazakhstan.

Most ominous of all for the USSR central bureaucracy is the growth of nationalism in the biggest of the non-Russian republics, the Ukraine, as the fiftieth anniversary of the incorporation of the Western Ukraine into the USSR (through Stalin’s partitioning of Poland with Hitler) approaches.

The growing ethnic unrest is matched by economic disarray. The reforms implemented so far have made the economic crisis worse rather than better. Enterprise managers have seized the opportunity offered by reduced central supervision to produce goods which provide the biggest profits and bonuses, rather than those which are needed by other enterprises or by the mass of consumers.

July’s miners’ strikes showed how widespread the dissatisfaction with living standards had become, and how easily it could spill over into a workers’ movement of immense power. Gorbachev himself describes the strikes as “the worst ordeal to befall our country in four years of restructuring.”

The strikes only ended when Prime Minister Ryzhkov agreed to meet the unofficial strike committees face to face – and to promise immediate satisfaction of the most pressing grievances. The price of doing so has been to arrange to spend 42 billion roubles on foreign imports of food and consumer goods.

The explosion of discontent from below has taken place just as morale in the party apparatus has fallen to an all time low. In a fascinating article in Moskovksaya Pravda (18 August) the sociologist N. Mikhailov asked, “is October 1964 [the month of Khrushchev’s removal from power] possible today?”. Using Lenin’s analysis of what constitutes a revolutionary crisis, he concluded there was a threefold crisis:

“(1) A substantial decline in the party’s authority in the eyes of the non-party section of the population ... (2) Ubiquitous distrust on the part of the population, including rank and file communists, in the party apparatus ... (3) The growing confrontation between the party apparatus locally and the central leadership bodies of the party ...

“Having lost the confidence of the ‘lower strata’ and failing to receive, as they see it, protection from the ‘upper echelons’, party workers (and many soviet, Komsomol, trade union and economic leaders) would clearly not object to a change of political course.”

The USSR’s bureaucracy is a ruling class which has been accustomed, for 60 years, to have things all its own way. Gorbachev was able to receive a reluctant endorsement from it for glasnost because it seemed to promise a way out of the “pre-crisis” situation in the economy. Now the pressures on the central party leadership for a sharp turn away from glasnost have grown.

The sense of crisis is made worse by international developments. Until recently Gorbachev could counter criticisms of his lack of success at home by pointing to gains in foreign policy – liquidation of the Afghan war, agreements with the US over arms reduction, Central America and Southern Africa, growing signs that West Germany would persuade the European community to help bolster up the East European economies whether the US wanted them to or not.

In line with this approach, it seemed quite a clever move to allow one of the smallest of the East European states, Hungary, to open up markets and its frontiers to the West and to talk in terms of a multi-party system.

But now Eastern Europe shows signs of unravelling even faster than the USSR itself. The elections in Poland resulted in such a defeat for the ruling party that it was impossible for it to form a government. There must be fears in the Kremlin that this unstable political situation could get right out of control – especially if events in the Baltic republics mean Poles lose any fear of Russian troops on their Eastern border.

Events in Poland and Hungary have increased instability in the two most economically advanced – and most economically important to the USSR – East European states, Czechoslovakia and East Germany.

And the opening of Hungary’s border to Austria has suddenly raised the prospect of haemorrhaging of key sections of East Germany’s workforce to the West and an enormous weakening of its economy.

At the same tune, it is by no means clear that concessions to the Americans are going to produce a more favourable international situation for the USSR’s rulers. There are powerful figures inside the Bush administration who see those concessions as a sign that with a little more American pressure – the Star Wars programme, for instance – the USSR can be cracked right open and American global influence guaranteed for another generation.

The rise of the right wing Republican Party has put electoral pressure on the West German government to adopt a confrontational rather than supportive stance towards Russian interests in Eastern Europe.

Now the possibility arises that instead West Germany will see what’s happening as providing possibilities of West German hegemony, even perhaps of reuniting Germany under the control of the West German ruling class.

This is a prospect which no section of the Russian bureaucracy can relish. Many bureaucrats applauded when Gorbachev’s policies allowed them to disentangle themselves from an unwinnable war in Afghanistan. They must now be terrified that reluctance to get involved in military action – an “Afghan syndrome” – will result in loss of influence over important states on their Western borders.

So the Central Committee statement on the Baltic republics was meant to be the first step in dealing with both domestic and international dangers. How better to call into line all the’ ‘informal” organisations challenging the bureaucracy’s hold right across the USSR than to crack the whip at the most powerful of them, the Popular Fronts in the Baltic republics? How better to intimidate the Poles than to show that the Russian army can still restore order in neighbouring Lithuania?

The statement could well represent an important shift away from the strategy Gorbachev has pursued for the last four years to one in which repression and the direct exercise of force play a much more important part.

This does not mean that military action in the Baltic has to take place immediately. The statement represents a warning shot. There might well be a gap of months between it and any real fighting in the Baltic states.

Nor does the statement necessarily imply the immediate demise of Gorbachev as president. A growing section of the bureaucracy is repudiating his policies. But they may not yet be able to repudiate the man as well.

To be effective in crushing the Balts, they need to keep the mass of workers in the Russian heartlands of the USSR quiet and to make it clear to the West that they are not out to undo the deals made in the last two years.

They must fear that both tasks will be made more difficult if Gorbachev is not around to front whatever action is taken. It was the “reformer” Khrushchev who sent the Russian troops into Hungary in 1956. It was the “reformer” Gomulka who alone had the prestige to restore order in Poland in the years that followed. And in 1968 Brezhnev saw the need to keep the reformer Dubcek as Czechoslovak party leader while “normalisation” began.

Finally, history is never just made by ruling classes. In 1953, 1956, 1968 and 1980 sudden movements from below threw into disarray all the manoeuvres and machinations of established bureaucracies. The spread of nationalist agitation from republic to republic and, above all, the miners’ strikes have shown how rapidly such movements can erupt in a country as crisis-wracked as the USSR today. Under such circumstances, moves to increased repression are a gamble which might not pay off for the USSR’s increasingly frightened and conservative leadership.

The Central Committee statement proves that the phoney war is over and the real war about to begin. But it cannot guarantee to the bureaucracy the victory over the popular forces that it so desperately wants.

Last updated on 7 May 2010