Conference reports To the Participants of the VIII World Congress of the International Council for Central and East European Studies

Gorbachev here emphasize that the essence of glasnost was a real dialogue between authorities and society. The dialogue, he argues here, required a rejection of all forms of censorship and pressure on the mass media, the existence of rights for freedom of assembly, meetings and demonstrations, freedom of conscience, and the creation of public organisations. All this was done in the perestroika years according to Gorbachev.

Published on on August 25, 2010

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Conference paper

Dear Congress Participants,

Unfortunately, I am unable to avail myself of your invitation and take part in your work. Therefore, I would like to share with you some thoughts which seem to me to be very topical this year – the 25th year since the beginning of perestroika in our country. I think, you will agree, that precisely this event gave the decisive impulse to those changes which subsequently embraced all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and permitted, in a peaceful, unaggressive form, the withdrawal from a totalitarian system and the commencement of the movement towards a free, democratic society. This movement is continuing and for all our countries it has turned out to be more complicated and difficult that it appeared to many at the beginning of the journey.

Therefore, all the more important is an unbiased, truly scientific analysis of the ongoing processes, their roots, and an understanding of the reasons for the events – both the achievements which cannot be erased, and also the mistakes for which a high price had to be paid.

Perestroika in the Soviet Union had profound roots in the situation existing in our country and in the whole world.  The system created at home under the slogans of socialism and permitting, at the price of enormous sacrifices, the laying of the foundation for its industrial might, all the more showed itself incapable of meeting the challenges of the new era, the epoch of the scientific and technical revolution and globalisation. People were rejecting the lack of freedom and strict limitations constricting their initiative and opportunities. It is no accident that the ideas of reforming the system had already originated after the routing of fascism in the Second World War. Of course, they could not be realised during Stalin’s lifetime. But also subsequent efforts at reform gave no firm results due to the powerful resistance of the conservative bureaucratic apparatus and the lack of political will of the country’s top leadership.

Coming to perestroika we were aware that it was ‘impossible to live like that any longer’. We understood what we had to reject – the strict political, ideological and economic system, the attempts to control everything and anything in the country, and any confrontation and unrestrained arms race in the international arena. We were sure that society would support us in this and we were proved right.

But simultaneously there arose before us another, much more complicated question: where to go, what to aim for? Views on this changed during the course of perestroika, they developed and became more concrete, and in society there was a wide spectrum of opinions regarding the roads to further development – from the extremely radical and destructive to the conservatively protectionist. In these circumstances the perestroika leadership made a choice in favour of deep system-wide transformations, the eradication of bureaucratic institutions, and the creation of new ones capable of entering organically into the democratic process.

Of principle importance to us also was the issue of the pace of change. It remained contentious throughout the whole duration of the perestroika period and has not lost its bite even today. Doubtlessly, science and serious, objective researchers can make their contribution to the discussion on this issue. With hindsight, it seems to me that the pace of change turned out to be very rapid and, possibly, extreme for a society in which elements of radical impatience existed alongside traditions of conservative thinking and communal culture, hopes for a ‘new tsar’, and a weak ability for self-organisation.

In these contradictory circumstances we considered it our goal to overcome the alienation of the people from politics, to give people the opportunity actually to influence decisions taken and to arouse their initiative. The main lever in this process, laying the foundation for the democratisation of all parts of life in society, was glasnost.

The essence of glasnost was in a real dialogue between authorities and society, which (I shall note in passing) is also topical today, where the possibilities of such a dialogue are often constricted and wedged into formal frameworks. The dialogue required a rejection of all forms of censorship and pressure on the mass media, the existence of rights for freedom of assembly, meetings and demonstrations, freedom of conscience, and the creation of public organisations. All this was done in the perestroika years and, as is now clear, it was doubtlessly necessary so that the changes in the country did not wither, were not diluted or disrupted.

Gradually – but by historical measures very rapidly – the necessity for profound democratic changes in the life of the country became clear to the initiators of perestroika: the liberation of the CPSU from its high-level functions standing above all state and social structures, and the formation of a law-governed state. At the party conference in June 1988 we gained approval for this course and the movement in the direction of democracy and freedom began to acquire an irreversible character.

We are often asked: why did we not conduct, simultaneously with political reforms or even before their implementation, a reform of the economic system, the archaism of which and its inconformity to modern requirements, it seems, were obvious? But precisely the task of restructuring the economy seemed to us the most difficult, both due to objective reasons, and also due to the mistakes committed by the perestroika leadership.

Among the reasons of an external nature I cannot but mention the sharp fall in prices for oil and other fuel and raw-material resources on world markets which led to a reduction in the import of goods and furthered the disruption of the consumer market. The consequences of natural and man-made catastrophes also played their part. But we have also to acknowledge our insufficient persistence in conducting price reform and the protraction in taking decisions which could have balanced supply and demand in the consumer market and restored control of currency circulation.  A negative role was also played by the action of radical forces which led to a reduction in production and the severance of economic relations.

Despite all this, we did have the chance to surmount the economic crisis. But it was undone by the August putsch – an attempt by conservative forces inside the leadership to turn back the processes occurring in the country.

The putsch was a fatal event also for the fate of the union of republics which we wanted to reform and decentralise, but nevertheless retain in a renovated form in the interests of the people and in the interests of continuing the democratic processes across the whole territory of the USSR. It weakened my position as the country’s president and opened the path for radical forces which, against the will of the citizens expressed in the referendum in March 1991, proceeded to liquidate the centre of the union and obtained approval for this decision from the republics’ supreme soviets.

Subsequent events proved that the liquidation of the Union had the most negative consequences both for the economy, leading to the failure of reforms under conditions of a disruption in inter-republican economic ties, and also for democratic processes, for the formation of a law-governed state in the new independent republics.  There arose in the majority of them regimes of ‘non-alternative power’, far from real democracy and hampering the formation of a civil society.

Perestroika was thus interrupted under the blows of conservative and radical liberal forces. However, it had managed to reach the point where a return to the past was already impossible. Its achievements – and first and foremost the citizens’ discovered freedom – had become deeply rooted in the foundation of our society. Also indelible are the results of perestroika in the international arena.

In a few years we were able to put an end to the cold war and confrontation and to begin the de-escalation of the arms race, most of all in nuclear arms, and to normalise relations with all the leading powers. No less important was the impulse which perestroika gave to the democratic processes in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The rejection of the ‘Brezhnev doctrine’, the release of people from fear of interference and invasion from without, gave these countries the possibility themselves to decide their fate. I think that we can be proud of the choice which we made when the process of German unification accelerated. It was not easy for us considering the mood of a part of the country’s population and the position of certain influential European circles attempting with the hands of the Soviet Union to hinder the unification of Germany. But history confirmed the correctness of the choice we made – not to impede the unification, to aid its peaceful advance and to regulate its external aspects. Who knows what could have happened in Europe and in the world had we taken a different position…

Today’s researchers must honestly and accurately analyse the processes which were occurring in those years and what followed them. Including in order to find an answer to the question: why is it that far from all the hopes we had in those years were accomplished, were subsequent events a natural and unavoidable continuation of the perestroika years or are we speaking of a ‘discontinuity of ages’? Much is debatable here, but I consider it necessary to give my point of view.

Of course, there is no ‘Great Wall of China’ or ‘firewall’ between the two periods. It would also be untrue completely to assess negatively the post-perestroika period. But to not see the differences between the two periods, in my opinion, is deeply flawed.

We placed a stake on evolutionary, gradual changes, and strived not to ride roughshod over people. Those coming to power after us selected a path of total demolition of everything ‘from the foundation, and then…’ We considered it necessary to preserve the regulatory role of the state during the process of transition to the market. But the reformers of the 90’s believed in the magical force of the ‘free market’. We wanted to preserve all that was positive in our relations with the union republics and neighbouring countries. The Russian leadership made a choice in favour of disintegration. We advocated the creation of a new security architecture, most of all in Europe. But the subsequent generation of leaders were unable to bring to life this idea, the result of which were the conflicts and even wars on our continent.

I am convinced that many errors could have been avoided if it were not for the triumphal mood in the West announcing its ‘victory in the cold war’ and setting a course for the monopolistic global leadership of the ‘single superpower’ and its allies. It is clear today that in a global, mutually-dependent world such a course is destined to fail. However, the understanding of this has not yet reached everyone and it will cost the world dearly.

I want again to emphasise: to understand the processes occurring in the world, including in our region, both the vision of political leaders and the sober, objective analysis of researchers is needed. I see the ‘super-task’ of your work in furthering the development of countries in the region along the democratic path so that in each of them is formed a stable economy, strong civil society, and an effective state serving the people. These goals are achievable and I am sure that the movement in this direction will continue.

 M. Gorbachev

21 July, 2010