14 December 2011, 14:38

Did Gorbachev’s perestroika have an alternative?

Did Gorbachev’s perestroika have an alternative?
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By the end of 1980s the Russian word “perestroika” had become known all over the world. It was pronounced with English and French accents, written in hieroglyphs and Arabic script. It was associated with the name of Mikhail Gorbachev, the collapse of communism and the end of the Cold war.

But for the people in the USSR Gorbachev’s reforms ended not only with the collapse of the Communist regime, the economic breakdown and the break- up of the Soviet Union. Today, 20 years after the break-up of the USSR the question of whether the country had an alternative way of development still haunts the minds of political analysts.  

In the mid 1980-s the USSR faced a serious social, economic and political crisis. In 1985, after the death of aged Secretary General of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (the CPSU) Konstantin Chernenko, Mikhail Gorbachev was elected Secretary General. Gorbachev managed to bring his supporters to the government, who also understood that changes were needed. At the same time they believed that socialism still had potential and the situation could be improved by conducting reforms from the top-down. A year later the terms “perestroika”, “uskorenie” and “glasnost” emerged. The last two implied more efficient economic development and freedom of speech.

Gorbachev hoped to cure the national economy with the help of Western loans and technologies. The cooperative movement spread over the country – people set up small private companies (cooperatives) and built joint ventures in cooperation with foreign businessmen. People were allowed to express their opinions more freely in everyday life and also in mass media and even to go on strike. The authorities rehabilitated a prominent Soviet dissident academician Andrei Sakharov and allowed him to return to Moscow from exile. Later 140 dissidents were freed.

It seemed that everything was going smoothly. But Gorbachev was not destined to build a socialism “with a human face”. The state controlled economy failed to become efficient, and drastic decline of oil prices on the global market made the situation even worse. Soviet people had to live in a state of total deficit when shop windows were empty.

The political reforms grew into mass anti-Communist campaigns. The government had to drop the article on the leading role of the CPSU from the Constitution. The old neglected ethnic conflicts broke out again in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Moldova. The Central Asian and Baltic republics wanted to become sovereign states. The “new thinking” Gorbachev declared in the Soviet Union’s foreign policy led to endless concessions to the West. On December 8, 1991, the Belavezha accord was signed   which declared the Soviet Union dissolved. 

Today most of the experts don’t doubt the fact that the reforms of the USSR were inevitable. But they differ in their views on how the reforms should be implemented. However many people still have good memories of the time of “perestroika” and “glasnost”, for example Stanislav Sushkevich.

"It was a good period, when people could freely exchange opinions. I was excited about perestroika when it was declared. I understood that we could express our criticism but I also understood that glasnost did not mean the whole truth. Anyway it was a decisive step forward."

There was no alterative to perestroika but the reforms should have been started in the economy not in politics, a political analyst Alexander Cipko says.

"Sooner or later some politician would have started these reforms anyway. Another thing is that it should have been done slowly and carefully. The reforms were inevitable – all this policy of glasnost, abandonment of censorship and state control. But in my opinion it should have been done the way the Chinese did it – the economic reforms should go ahead of political reforms."

We all know that there are no “if”s in the past history and Perestroika in the USSR is in the past. At present there is Russia and its partners, many of which are trying to restore the broken economic and political ties with Moscow. However the past should not be forgotten in order not to repeat earlier mistakes.

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