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  • The Crisis of Perestroika
  • Gail W. Lapidus (bio)

The past few months have witnessed not only a mounting assault on the political, economic, and foreign policy reforms associated with perestroika, but a whole series of measures that effectively curtail and reverse it. The use of military force and political intimidation against democratically elected governments in Lithuania and Latvia in January 1991 provided the most dramatic instances of what is clearly a broader retreat from glasnost, democratization, and a significant transformation of the Soviet federation. Strong central control was reasserted over economic and political life; glasnost was curtailed and prior censorship reinstated in the central media; attacks were launched against democratic reformers, especially Boris Yeltsin, the leader of the Russian republic (RSFSR); the status and powers of the KGB and the military in maintaining internal order were enhanced; and a partial retreat from the "new political thinking" in foreign and military policy became evident in Soviet behavior with respect to arms control and the Persian Gulf war.

These changes signal a clear repudiation of the attitudes and policies associated with perestroika that, over the past six years, had begun to transform the Soviet system in far-reaching and hopeful ways. Although it began as a program of authoritarian modernization similar to that launched by Yuri Andropov, perestroika was progressively broadened and deepened as Gorbachev and some of his associates came to realize that their original approach was inadequate to the scope and depth of the problems facing the country. In an effort to unleash the dynamism [End Page 47] essential to economic progress, and to attack the deeply entrenched institutions and behavior patterns that blocked it, Gorbachev's reforms steadily widened the boundaries of legitimate economic, social, and political behavior and delegitimized key features of the old Soviet system. They also forged an unprecedented partnership between the political leadership and the democratic intelligentsia, transforming former dissidents into supporters and even advisors of the government.

The changes initiated during these years had a dramatic impact on Soviet institutions and policies. Glasnost not only expanded the arena of public discussion; it challenged the Party's claim to a monopoly of truth. Democratization encouraged the emergence of independent social and political organizations, and indeed of new political parties, while the introduction of competitive elections enshrined the principle of political accountability and transformed long-dormant legislative bodies into vital political actors. As political mobilization increasingly swelled into a tide of ethno-national mobilization, the leadership belatedly recognized that a fundamental restructuring of the Soviet political system had to be placed at the top of the political agenda. Growing recognition of the need for more fundamental reforms to arrest the accelerating deterioration of economic performance contributed to the erosion of old orthodoxies and growing support for marketization and the legalization of private property.

"New political thinking" was even more evident in foreign policy, where the Gorbachev leadership pursued not merely a relaxation of tensions and a scaling-down of superpower aspirations but a profound transformation of its relationship to allies, clients, and competitors alike. Soviet-American relations underwent a particularly dramatic evolution: in the wake of significant successes in negotiating new arms control agreements and political settlements of regional conflicts, and of Soviet acquiescence in the liberation of Eastern Europe and the unification of Germany, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker heralded the dawn of a new era in which Soviet-American rivalry bad been supplanted by genuine partnership. This new relationship, too, is now in jeopardy.

The Conservative Tide

The crisis of perestroika is the consequence of three trends that have reshaped the Soviet political landscape over the past year: the coalescence and growing assertiveness of a conservative/reactionary coalition long opposed to Gorbachev's reforms and now openly seeking to reverse them; the fragmentation and growing disarray of democratic reformers in the face of mounting problems; and Gorbachev's own accelerated shift to the right.1

The newly formidable conservative coalition, knit together out of a motley assortment of opponents of reform, has played a key role in [End Page 48] transforming the Soviet political climate. Alarmed by both the accelerating economic crisis and growing challenges to the integrity of the Soviet state...


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