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Masterpieces of History

Svetlana Savranskaya
Thomas Blanton
Vladislav Zubok


Document No. 25: National Intelligence Estimate 11/12-9-88, “Soviet Policy toward Eastern Europe under Gorbachev”, May 1988

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1At the end of May 1988, Ronald Reagan would walk through Red Square in Moscow and pronounce that the “evil empire” was from “another time, another era.” Judging by this National Intelligence Estimate, the president at this stage is well ahead of his own intelligence community. Because NIEs emerge from a painstaking bureaucratic process involving all intelligence agencies in a search for consensus, sharp language and pointed findings are usually lacking. This was especially the case with Soviet estimates during this period when hardliners in the U.S. Defense Department and at the top of the CIA suspected Gorbachev’s motives. In this context, this NIE (based on information available to analysts as of May 26) makes a fairly bold conclusion—that almost any government in Eastern Europe would be acceptable to Moscow as long as it called itself communist. The USSR would invade only “in extremis,” the analysis states, because Gorbachev is facing “greater constraints than did his predecessors against intervening militarily in Eastern Europe.” Yet it is Gorbachev’s own attempts to bring perestroika to the other communist countries that “have increased the potential for instability in Eastern Europe.” The NIE envisions three “extreme” scenarios, each of which would in fact materialize over the coming months, and in far more dramatic and sweeping forms than the NIE imagined: (1) a backlash in East Germany and Romania against Gorbachev’s reform policies, (2) a popular upheaval in Poland, Hungary or Romania against the party and the Soviets, and (3) sweeping reform in Poland or Hungary, even beyond perestroika.



  • 1 Information available as of May 26, 1988 [as indicated in original document].

2General Secretary Gorbachev’s policies have increased the potential for instability in Eastern Europe. But they have also expanded the scope for diversity and experimentation, affording new possibilities for evolutionary reform in the region.

3Gorbachev has set an ambitious agenda for Eastern Europe. His aims are to secure East European support for the Soviet modernization drive, promote broader Soviet foreign policy objectives through closer Warsaw Pact coordination, and stimulate a deeper process of economic and political regeneration in the region. Aware of the region’s diversity, he has set general guidelines for reform rather than detailed plans. But he faces East European realities—severe economic problems, aging leaderships, and mounting social discontent—that conflict with Soviet objectives.

4Soviet policy under Gorbachev has sought to balance the competing objectives of encouraging change and promoting stability. Although Gorbachev has avoided a high-risk strategy of forcing change on these fragile political systems, continuing Soviet pressure, as well as the example of the Soviet reform program, has introduced new tensions into the region.

Growing Diversity, Sharper Conflict

5For the next three to five years, Eastern Europe’s outlook is for growing diversi-ty—in responding to reform pressures, crafting approaches to the West, and managing relations with Moscow.

  • Economically, Eastern Europe cannot deliver what Gorbachev wants. As the gap between goals and results grows more acute, Gorbachev is likely to exert stronger pressure on his allies to forge closer economic ties, upgrade performance, and implement domestic economic reforms.
  • While the recent leadership change in Hungary probably comes close to Gorbachev’s preferences for Eastern Europe, prospective successions elsewhere are not likely to yield the dynamic, innovative leaders Gorbachev needs to achieve his more ambitious goals in the region. Consequently, his pressures for change will continue to be aimed at regimes ill-equipped and, in some cases, unwilling to respond.

6Thus, at best, Gorbachev’s approach can achieve only evolutionary progress toward political rejuvenation and improved economic performance in Eastern Europe. Continued, and probably heightened, Soviet pressure will lead to sharper conflicts, and both with Eastern European societies and between Moscow and its allies.

Potential Challenges to Soviet Control

7Cross-pressures emanating from Moscow, coupled with severe economic and political dilemmas in Eastern Europe, could yield more serious challenges to Soviet interests. Three extreme scenarios are possible:

  • Popular upheaval in Poland, Romania, Hungary, involving a broad-based challenge to party supremacy and ultimately to Soviet control.
  • Sweeping reform in Hungary or Poland, going well beyond Gorbachev’s agenda and eventually threatening to erode party control.
  • Conservative backlash, involving open repudiation of Soviet policies by orthodox leaders in East Germany, Romania, or elsewhere.

8Of these, popular upheaval is the most likely contingency. Gorbachev will expect his allies to act decisively to end any political violence or major unrest. Indeed, East European leaders are at least as aware of the need for vigilance as Gorbachev is, and they have at their disposal powerful security forces that have proved effective in containing unrest. Should events spin out of their control and beyond the limits of Soviet tolerance, the ultimate controlling factor on change in Eastern Europe will be Soviet force:

  • Gorbachev faces greater constraints than did his predecessors against intervening militarily in Eastern Europe; his foreign policy and arms control agenda, and much of his domestic program as well, would be threatened.
  • A Dubček-like regime would have much greater latitude to pursue reforms now than in 1968, and Soviet intervention to stop it would be more problematic.
  • In extremis, however, there is no reason to doubt his willingness to intervene to preserve party rule and decisive Soviet influence in the region. […]


9[…] Outlook: Growing Diversity, Sharper Conflict

1026. Soviet policy toward Eastern Europe is likely to continue along the lines already established under Gorbachev. Its key elements will be:

  • Within the framework of firm party control, sanctioning of diversity and experimentation as the keys to economic and political viability.
  • Continued pressure for reform without dictating specific measures or demanding slavish emulation of Soviet practices.
  • Insistence on foreign policy coordination, whereby the East Europeans are afforded greater room for tactical maneuver but are expected to hew closely to the broad lines set in Moscow.
  • Mounting pressure for improved East European economic performance and increased cooperation in high-technology areas.
  • Longer term efforts toward strengthened institutional ties, coupled with alliance management techniques that facilitate Soviet control and influence through a more participatory system of give-and-take.

1127. These broad contours of Soviet policy will remain in place so long as Gorbachev’s domestic position is secure and Eastern Europe remains quiescent. A major change in Moscow would obviously alter the equation:

  • Gorbachev’s ouster would curtail the Soviet reform drive and heighten uncertainties in Eastern Europe as the new regime sorted itself out. His removal on political grounds would send another new signal to the divided East European regimes—this time a sharply antireformist one—and undercut Soviet authority, at least temporarily.
  • Retrenchment in Moscow (with Gorbachev still in office) would strengthen the existing orthodox leaders in Eastern Europe without fully arresting the pressures for change. Perceived lack of unity in the Kremlin would further polarize Eastern Europe, with conservatives seeking to restore the status quo ante and reformists continuing to push for change.
  • More daring Soviet reforms—a result, perhaps, of Gorbachev’s need to overcome bureaucratic resistance through radical policy and personnel changes—would further destabilize Eastern Europe and strain relations with Moscow. Rising pressures within the East European regimes might prompt some of them to implement sweeping reforms or force out existing leaders.

1228. Gorbachev has played a skillful political game so far, pulling back when necessary while gathering support for the next push forward. Although the chances of a domestic showdown have increased, Gorbachev seems to have the upper hand and appears inclined to push his reform agenda further and more forcefully.

1329. Growing Diversity. For the next three to five years, the outlook in Eastern Europe is for growing diversity—in responding to reform pressures, crafting approaches to the West, and managing relations with Moscow. Diverse East European arms control proposals and economic approaches to the West will facilitate some Soviet objectives, but they will also complicate the tasks of alliance management and run counter to the joint action needed for scientific-technological cooperation. In Gorbachev’s broader view, moreover, diversity is no end in itself but rather a vehicle for economic and political regeneration. These goals are nowhere in sight in Eastern Europe. Except perhaps in Hungary, they are not likely even to be seriously pursued.

1430. Glasnost and perestroika will continue to yield mixed results. Barring leadership changes, Romania and East Germany will continue to resist reform pressures; Bulgaria will continue to experiment at the margins but will proceed only haltingly toward real “restructuring.” The new Czechoslovak leadership under [Miloš] Jakeš will push more forcefully for economic change, but serious movement toward economic and political reform remains a distant prospect. Hungary and Poland could be more interesting:

  • The appointment of Karóly Grósz—a tough, self-confident risk taker in the Gorbachev mold—as General Secretary of the Hungarian party and the promotion into the leadership of outspoken reform advocates marks an important turning point. The new leadership is likely to be much more aggressive in pressing economic and political reforms, but it faces severe problems—including workers unhappy with austerity, intellectuals demanding more freedom, and an economy that is stagnating and burdened with a heavy foreign debt. Failure to develop a more radical and effective reform program would further contribute to a rise in tensions.
  • Evidently with Soviet blessings, General Jaruzelski has already consolidated a rather unorthodox pattern of party-military rule, moved toward granting the Catholic Church new legal status, and proposed economic reforms that, on paper at least, go well beyond Moscow’s. The disastrous economic situation and social discontent—as shown by the recent wave of strikes—make successful realization of the reforms unlikely, but the urgency of domestic problems may also push the regime toward the social dialogue it has rejected up to now.

1531. In foreign policy, the East European regimes have reason to be satisfied with Gorbachev’s skillful engagement of the West and their own increased room for maneuver. So long as Moscow maintains a conciliatory approach to the West, Soviet and East European policies will remain generally congruent. At the same time, Gorbachev’s encouragement of a more active role for the East Europeans will increase the chances for open conflicts of interest at CSCE (Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe) talks and in other Pan-European forums. There will also be increased risk of further embarrassments to Moscow arising from Hungarian-Romanian polemics or the public airing of East European human rights violations. Hence, foreign policy coordination will require more skillful management, and Gorbachev will need to prod the Czechoslovak and Bulgarian regimes toward more active diplomacy while restraining the occasional independent-mindedness of the Romanians, Hungarians, Poles, and East Germans.

1632. At the same time, East European realities will limit the parameters of possible Soviet initiatives. Not only must Gorbachev weigh the consequences of Soviet policies on political stability in Eastern Europe, but he must also take into account the perceptions and likely reactions of East European leaders. Their views are not likely to deter him from policies he considers vital to Soviet interests; but, on matters as potentially destabilizing as inter-German relations, his options are limited. Indeed, Gorbachev’s campaign for a common “European house” of growing intra-European cooperation implies a degree of national autonomy in Eastern Europe far beyond what he or any other Soviet leader would countenance. Moscow will find it increasingly difficult to promote this line in the West without introducing new divisions into Eastern Europe as well. (The Berlin Wall will stay, whatever tactical advantages Gorbachev might see in its removal.) […]

Potential Challenges to Soviet Control

1745. There are at least three more extreme scenarios that could lead to serious challenges to Soviet control over Eastern Europe.

1846. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the 1968 Prague Spring, and the Polish social revolution of 1980-1 (along with numerous other lesser upheavals) provide ample evidence of the inherent instability of Moscow’s East European empire. Each of these had its own dynamic, but each led ultimately to a broad-based challenge to party supremacy and Soviet control in the region. And each led to crisis—meaning in the East European context the actuality or imminent likelihood of Soviet military intervention.

1947. However, Gorbachev’s sanctioning of reform and experimentation implies a more liberal Soviet definition of “crisis.” Liberalizing reform (of the kind espoused by the 1968 Czechoslovak leadership) may no longer lead so swiftly and automatically to a “crisis situation” in Moscow’s eyes.

2048. Popular upheaval. Several of the usual instability indicators—discontent over living standards, weak and divided leadership, social unrest—are evident in several countries, and all face pressures emanating from Moscow. New shocks—severe austerity measures, the death or ouster of a top party leader, or the emergence of an organized and emboldened opposition—could bring about serious instability almost anywhere, with Poland, Romania, and Hungary the most likely candidates for trouble:

  • The likelihood of multiple, simultaneous upheavals is higher than it has been in more than 30 years. In the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, virtually all the East European countries face analogous sets of problems: stagnant economies, leadership successions and reformist pressures from Moscow.
  • As in the past, however, possible scenarios would be highly country-specific. Only in Romania is there a significant possibility of widespread violence; elsewhere, the greater likelihood would be a broad-based, organized challenge to regime authority. (In Poland, however, this latter scenario could also lead to a cycle of repression and violence.)

2149. For Gorbachev, a possible upheaval in Eastern Europe constitutes the greatest external threat to the Soviet reform program and his own continued tenure. Despite the greater tolerance he has shown for experimentation, he will expect his allies to take swift, decisive action to end any political violence or major unrest. Indeed, the East European leaderships are at least as aware as Gorbachev is of the need for vigilance, and they have at their disposal large security forces that have been effective thus far in containing disturbances. Should events overwhelm the capacity of local leaders, there is no reason to doubt that he would take whatever action was required, including military intervention, to preserve party rule and Soviet authority in the region. Like his predecessors, Gorbachev would exhaust all other options before undertaking Soviet military intervention. Indeed, he faces even greater constraints:

  • A Soviet invasion of an allied country would do irreparable damage to his image in the West and undermine the entire edifice of his foreign policy.
  • An upheaval in Eastern Europe, particularly one attributable to Gorbachev’s reform pressures, could also threaten his domestic standing. It would add domestic political pressures for his removal from power and the curtailment of his reform program.

22[Source: Central Intelligence Agency: At Cold War’s End: US Intelligence on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, 1989-1991. Ed: Benjamin B. Fischer, 1999.]


1 Information available as of May 26, 1988 [as indicated in original document].

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