Gorbachev’s Failed Attempts to Reform the USSR
Mikhail Gorbachev, who came to power in March 1985, was the most
gifted and dynamic leader Russia had seen for many years. He was
determined to transform and revitalise the country after the sterile
years following Krushchev’s fall. The two key ideas were glasnost
(openness) and perestroika (restructuring). Gorbachev did not want to
end communism; he wanted to replace the existing system, which was
still basically Stalinist, with a socialist system that was humane and
democratic. He did not have great success at home. Why his attempts to
reform the USSR failed, will be discussed in the following paragraphs.
First of all, there was opposition from within the communist party;
radicals such as Boris Yeltsin felt that the reforms were not drastic
enough, while conservatives like Yegor Ligachev felt that the changes
were too drastic and that the party was in danger of losing control.
The conservatives were in a large majority and got elected for the new
Supreme Soviet, whilst Yeltsin and many other radicals were not
elected. This led to massive protest demonstrations in Moscow, where
Yeltsin was a popular figure. Demonstrations would not have been
allowed before Gorbachev’s time, but glasnost was now in full flow and
was beginning to turn against the communist party.
Second, the economic results were disappointing; the economic reforms
did not produce results quickly enough.
Basic goods were in short supply and the queues in the towns got
longer. Having had their expectations raised by his promises, people
became outraged at the shortages. A huge strike was held by a group of
coalminers (they were quickly joined by other miners until half a
million miners were on strike). After about a month the strike was
over, but the economic situation did not improve. Gorbachev was fast
losing control of the reform movement that he had started, and the
success of the miners was bound to encourage the radicals to press for
even more far-reaching changes.
Third, there were nationalist pressures; there were many different
nationalities within the USSR that wanted independence. The republics
had been kept under tight control since Stalin’s time, but glasnost
and perestroika encouraged them to hope for more powers for their
parliaments and more independence from Moscow. Gorbachev himself
seemed sympathetic, provided that the Communist Party of the Soviet
Union remained in overall control. However, once started, demands got
out of hand.
Trouble began in Nagorno-Karabakh, a small republic within the Soviet
republic of Azerbaijan. The parliament of Nagorno-Karabakh requested
to become part of neighbouring Armenia, but Gorbachev refused. He was
afraid that if he agreed, this would upset the conservatives (who
opposed internal frontier changes)...