Chapter 30 - After the Fall: The Western World in a Global Age, Since 1985


BY 1985, AFTER FOUR DECADES of the Cold War, Westerners had become accustomed to a new division of Europe between West and East that seemed to be permanent. A prosperous Western Europe allied with the United States stood opposed to a still-struggling Eastern Europe that remained largely subject to the Soviet Union. The division of Germany symbolized the new order, which seemed so well established. Yet within a few years, a revolutionary upheaval in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe brought an end to the Cold War and to the division of postwar Europe. Even the Soviet Union ceased to exist as a nation.

On August 19,1991, a group of Soviet leaders opposed to reform arrested Mikhail Gorbachev, the president of the Soviet Union, and tried to seize control of the government. Hundreds of thousands of Russians, led by Boris Yeltsin, poured into the streets of Moscow and Leningrad to resist the attempted coup. Some army units, sent out to enforce the wishes of the rebels, defected to Yeltsin’s side, and within days, the rebels were forced to surrender. This failed attempt to seize power had unexpected results as Russia and many of the other Soviet republics declared their independence. By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union-one of the largest empires in world history-had come to an end, and a new era of cooperation between the successor states in the old Soviet Union and the nations of the West had begun.

As the world adjusted to the transformation from Cold War to post-Cold War sensibilities, other changes shaped the Western outlook. The demographic face of European countries changed as massive numbers of immigrants created more ethnically diverse populations. New artistic and intellectual currents, the continued advance of science and technology, the emergence of a Digital Age, the surge of the women’s liberation movement-all spoke of a vibrant, ever-changing world. At the same time, a devastating terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C., in 2001 made the Western world vividly aware of its vulnerability to international terrorism. Moreover, a financial collapse in 2008 threatened the economic security of the Western world as well as the entire global economy. But most important of all, Western nations, like all nations on the planet, have become aware of the political and economic interdependence of the world’s nations and the global nature of our twenty-first-century problems.

Toward a New Western Order

FOCUS QUESTION: What reforms did Gorbachev institute in the Soviet Union, and what role did he play in the demise of the Soviet Union? What are the major political developments in Eastern Europe, Western Europe, and North America since 1985?

Between 1945 and 1985, a new political order following the devastation of World War II had seemingly left the Western world divided permanently between a prosperous, capitalistic West and an impoverished, Communist East. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellite states underwent a revolutionary upheaval that dramatically altered the European landscape (see Map 30.1) and left many Europeans with both new hopes and new fears.

The Revolutionary Era in the Soviet Union

By 1980, it was becoming apparent to a small number of reformers in the Communist Party that the Soviet Union was seriously ailing. When one of these young reformers, Mikhail Gorbachev, was chosen as Party secretary in March 1985, a new era began in the Soviet Union.

THE GORBACHEV ERA Born into a peasant family in 1931, Mikhail Gorbachev combined farm work with school and received the Order of the Red Banner for his agricultural efforts. This award and his good school record enabled him to study law at the University of Moscow. After receiving his law degree in 1955, he returned to his native southern Russia, where he eventually became first secretary of the Party in the city of Stavropol (he had joined the Party in 1952) and then first secretary of the regional Party committee. In 1978, Gorbachev was made a member of the Party’s Central Committee in Moscow. Two years later, he became a full member of the ruling Politburo and secretary of the Central Committee. In March 1985, Party leaders elected him general secretary of the Party, and he became the new leader of the Soviet Union.

Educated during the years of reform under Khrushchev, Gorbachev seemed intent on taking earlier reforms to their logical conclusions. He had said to his wife on achieving power, “We cannot go on living like this.”1 By the 1980s, Soviet economic problems were obvious. Rigid, centralized planning had led to mismanagement and stifled innovation. Although the Soviets still excelled in space exploration, they had fallen behind the West in high technology, especially in the development and production of computers for private and public use. Most noticeable to the Soviet people was the decline in the standard of living. In February 1986, at the Twenty-Seventh Congress of the Communist Party, Gorbachev made clear the need for changes in Soviet society: “The practical actions of the Party and state agencies lag behind the demands of the times and of life itself.... Problems grow faster than they are solved. Sluggishness, ossification in the forms, and methods of management decrease the dynamism of work.... Stagnation begins to show up in the life of society.”2 Thus, from the start, Gorbachev preached the need for radical reforms.

The cornerstone of Gorbachev’s radical reforms was perestroika (per-uh-STROI-kuh), or “restructuring” (see the box on p. 930). At first, this meant only a reordering of economic policy as Gorbachev called for the beginning of a market economy with limited free enterprise and some private property. Gorbachev soon perceived, however, that in the Soviet system, the economic sphere was intimately tied to the social and political spheres. Attempting to reform the economy without political or social reform would be doomed to failure. One of the most important instruments of perestroika was glasnost (GLAHZ-nohst), or “openness.” Soviet citizens and officials were encouraged to discuss openly the strengths and weaknesses of the Soviet Union. Pravda (PRAHV-duh), the official newspaper of the Communist Party, began to include reports of official corruption, sloppy factory work, and protests against government policy. The arts also benefited from the new policy. Previously banned works were now published, and music based on Western styles, such as jazz and rock, began to be performed openly.

Political reforms were equally revolutionary. At the Communist Party conference in 1988, Gorbachev called for the creation of a new Soviet parliament, the Congress of People’s Deputies, whose members were to be chosen in competitive elections. It convened in 1989, the first such meeting in Russia since 1918. Early in 1990, Gorbachev legalized the formation of other political parties and struck Article 6, which had guaranteed the “leading role” of the Communist Party, from the Soviet constitution. At the same time, Gorbachev attempted to consolidate his power by creating a new state presidency. The new position was a consequence of the separation of the state from the Communist Party. Hitherto, the position of first secretary of the Party had been the most important post in the Soviet Union, but as the Communist Party became less closely associated with the state, the powers of this office diminished correspondingly. In March 1990, Gorbachev became the Soviet Union’s first president.

One of Gorbachev’s most serious problems stemmed from the nature of the nation he led. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a truly multiethnic country, containing 92 nationalities and 112 recognized languages. Previously, the iron hand of the Communist Party, centered in Moscow, had kept a lid on the centuries-old ethnic tensions that had periodically erupted. As Gorbachev released this iron grip, tensions resurfaced, a by-product of glasnost that Gorbachev had not anticipated. Ethnic groups took advantage of the new openness to protest what they perceived as ethnically motivated slights. When violence erupted, the Soviet army, in disrepair since its ill-fated decade-long foray into Afghanistan, had difficulty controlling the situation.

The years 1988 to 1990 also witnessed the appearance of nationalist movements in the republics that made up the Soviet Union. Many were motivated by ethnic concerns, with calls for sovereignty and independence from Russian-based rule centered in Moscow. These movements sprang up first in Georgia in late 1988 and then in Latvia (LAT-vee-uh), Estonia (ess-TOH-nee-uh), Moldova (mohl-DOH-vuh), Uzbekistan (ooz-BEK-i-stan), Azerbaijan (az-ur-by-JAHN), and Lithuania (li-thuh-WAY-nee-uh). On March 11, 1990, the Lithuanian Supreme Council proclaimed Lithuania an independent state.

THE END OF THE SOVIET UNION During 1990 and 1991, Gorbachev struggled to deal with Lithuania and the other problems unleashed by his reforms. On the one hand, he tried to appease conservatives who complained about the growing disorder within the Soviet Union. On the other hand, he tried to accommodate the liberal forces, especially those in the Soviet republics, who increasingly favored a new kind of decentralized Soviet federation. In particular, Gorbachev labored to cooperate more closely with Boris Yeltsin (YELT-sun) (1931-2007), who had been elected president of the Russian Republic in June 1991.

By 1991, the conservative leaders of the traditional Soviet institutions-the army, government, KGB, and military industries-had grown increasingly worried about the impending dissolution of the Soviet Union and its impact on their own fortunes. On August 19, 1991, a group of these discontented rightists arrested Gorbachev and attempted to seize power. Gorbachev’s unwillingness to work with the conspirators and the brave resistance in Moscow of Yeltsin and thousands of Russians who had grown accustomed to their new liberties caused the coup to disintegrate rapidly. The actions of these right-wing plotters, however, served to accelerate the very process they had hoped to stop-the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Despite desperate pleas by Gorbachev, the Soviet republics soon moved for complete independence. Ukraine voted for independence on December 1, 1991, and a week later, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus (bell-uh-ROOSS) announced that the Soviet Union had “ceased to exist” and would be replaced by the new and voluntary Commonwealth of Independent States. Gorbachev resigned on December 25, 1991, and turned over his responsibilities as commander in chief to Boris Yeltsin, the president of Russia. By the end of 1991, one of the largest empires in world history had evaporated, and a new era had begun in its lands.

WHY DID THE SOVIET UNION COLLAPSE? What caused the sudden collapse of the Soviet system? Some analysts in the United States argue that the ambitious defense policies adopted by the Reagan administration forced the Soviet Union into an arms race that it could not afford and that ultimately led to the collapse of the Soviet economy. Most observers, however, believe that the fall of the Soviet Union was primarily a consequence of conditions inherent in the system, some of which have been pointed out in this and the previous chapter. For years, Soviet leaders had denied or ignored the massive inefficiencies in the Soviet economy. In the 1980s, time began to run out. The perceptive Mikhail Gorbachev tried to stem the decline with radical reforms, but by then it was too late.

One other factor should also be considered. One of the weakest aspects of the Soviet Union was its multiethnic character, with only a little more than half of the total population made up of ethnic Russians. As we have seen, many of the minority nationalities were demanding more autonomy or even independence for their regions. By the end of the 1980s, such demands brought about the final collapse of the Soviet system.

THE NEW RUSSIA A new power struggle soon ensued within Russia, by far the largest of the former Soviet republics. Yeltsin was committed to introducing a free market economy as quickly as possible, but the transition was not easy. Economic hardships and social disarray, made worse by a dramatic rise in the activities of organized crime mobs, led increasing numbers of Russians to support both former Communists and hard-line nationalists who tried to place new limits on Yeltsin’s powers. Yeltsin fought back and pushed ahead with plans for a new Russian constitution that would abolish the Congress of People’s Deputies, create a two-chamber parliament, and establish a strong presidency. A hard-line parliamentary minority resisted and in early October 1993 took the offensive, urging their supporters to take over government offices. Yeltsin responded by ordering military forces to storm the parliament building and arrest his hard-line opponents. Yeltsin used his victory to consolidate his power in parliamentary elections held in December.

During the mid-1990s, Yeltsin sought to implement reforms that would set Russia on a firm course toward a pluralistic political system and a market economy. But the new post-Communist Russia remained as fragile as ever. Growing economic inequality and rampant corruption aroused widespread criticism and shook the confidence of the Russian people in the superiority of the capitalist system over the one that had existed under Communist rule. A nagging war in the Caucasus – where the Muslim people of Chechnya (CHECH-nee-uh) sought national independence from Russia – drained the government’s budget and exposed the decrepit state of the once vaunted Red Army. Yeltsin won reelection as president in 1996, although his precarious health raised serious questions about his ability to govern.

THE PUTIN ERA At the end of 1999, Yeltsin suddenly resigned and was replaced by Vladimir Putin (POO-tin) (b. 1952), a former member of the KGB. Putin vowed to strengthen the role of the central government in managing the affairs of state. During the succeeding months, the parliament approved his proposal to centralize power in the hands of the federal government in Moscow.

The new president also vowed to return the breakaway state of Chechnya to Russian authority and to adopt a more assertive role in international affairs. Fighting in Chechnya continued throughout 2000, nearly reducing the republic’s capital city of Grozny (GRAWZ-nee) to ruins. In July 2001, Putin launched reforms, which included the unrestricted sale and purchase of land and tax cuts aimed at boosting economic growth and budget revenues. Although Russia soon experienced a budget surplus and a growing economy, serious problems remained.

Putin attempted to deal with the chronic problems in Russian society by centralizing his control over the system and by silencing critics-notably in the Russian media. Although he was criticized in the West for these moves, many Russians expressed sympathy with Putin’s attempts to restore a sense of pride and discipline in Russian society.

In 2008, Dmitry Medvedev (di-MEE-tree mehd-VYEH-dehf) (b. 1965) became president of Russia when Putin could not run for reelection under Russia’s constitution. Instead, Putin became prime minister, and the two men shared power. In 2012, however, despite public protests, Putin was again elected president to a six-year term.

Next Reading: 30-2 Eastern Europe: The Revolutions of 1989