27 May 2009

The 'Sinatra doctrine' and the Gorbachev factor

Archie Brown, author of The Gorbachev Factor (and no relation to Dr B. of course), has a fascinating article over on Comment is Free reminding us that just over 20 years ago, on 25 May 1989, the Soviet Congress of People's Deputies had its opening session, and that unlike previous Soviet legislatures, a majority of the members had been chosen in competitive elections:
Much journalistic anniversary coverage this year will focus on the events that made for the most dramatic pictures – mass demonstrations in central European cities and, above all, east and west Germans dancing on the wall which had divided Berlin since 1961. Yet, the most important changes, the ones which made the transformation of Eastern Europe possible, took place elsewhere – in Moscow.
Archie Brown largely discounts the idea that reform was forced upon Gorbachev by pressure from outside or the dire economic situation inside the Soviet Union - ascribing a voluntarism to Gorbachev and a small circle of top policy makers:
As a result, decisions in Moscow not only played the decisive role in the spread of communism in Eastern Europe in the 1940s, they were just as crucial in facilitating the end of communist rule in Europe 40 years later.
Already in December 1988 at the United Nations, Brown notes, Mikhail Gorbachev had spoken of "the binding nature of the freedom of choice" of system for the people of every country. That applied, Gorbachev stated, both to socialist and to capitalist countries.

Yet what Brown does not note is the way in which this "freedom of choice" was having some perverse effects. Hungary had announced the dismantling of its section of the Iron Curtain with Austria (though this did not mean, of course, freedom of movement across the border) while in Poland, Jaruzelski had agreed to semi-free elections resulting in a de-facto non-communist government. Yet in the GDR, as epd notes on its splendid day-by-day account of the revolutionary year 1989, the police in Leipzig were continuing to seal off the streets around the Nikolaikirche to prevent protests after peace prayers. By ditching the Brezhnev doctrine for the Sinatra doctrine (the eastern European countries can do it, "their way"), Gorbachev was effectively saying that it was up to the local communist parties to decide what to do. In Poland, the party decided to seek a great national consensus, while the Hungarian party tried to reinvent itself as the avant garde for reform. In the GDR, however, the Socialist Unity Party oscillated between cracking down on dissent at home and a limited East-West opening up, as witnessed by the Berlin Philharmonic on 30 May 1989 giving its first concert in East Berlin since the building of the wall.

Arguably, it was the dialectic between Gorbachev's policy making in Moscow and the way in which relations between the state and the peoples would play out in eastern Europe that provided the template for the events of autumn 1989.


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