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Masterpieces of History

Svetlana Savranskaya
Thomas Blanton
Vladislav Zubok


Document No. 33: CIA Intelligence Assessment, “Gorbachev’s September Housecleaning: An Early Evaluation”, December 1988

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1This document provides the CIA’s evaluation—prior to Gorbachev’s U.N. speech—of the radical personnel changes the Soviet leader made at the September Party Plenum. There, Gorbachev consolidated the two Central Committee international departments (covering socialist and non-socialist countries) into a single body; created a supervisory International Commission with Yakovlev at the head; and completely rearranged the party’s power structure. The CIA’s analysis is detailed and informative but typically cautious in its “lowest common denominator” view of the dramatic changes inside the Soviet Union. No doubt the writers understood that senior echelons of the U.S. intelligence community such as then-Deputy Director Robert Gates—as well as the incoming Bush administration—still regarded Gorbachev’s initiatives and their growing popularity as a threat to the stability of the Western alliance system and a formidable challenge to U.S. foreign policy. Thus the assessment uses language such as, “The West is likely to face greater Soviet foreign policy activism”—as if such activism by definition could not be in the interest of the United States.

  • 1 Gates, From the Shadows, 439.

2This was an intelligence failure. Eastern Europe remained relatively calm, but in the Baltic republics and the Caucasus forces of national independence, and ethnic and social centrifugal dynamics were already beginning to destabilize the Soviet Union. Only after his retirement as CIA director did Gates declare that the effects of Soviet political reforms and glasnost were “unforeseen by Gorbachev, and unforeseen by CIA.”1 Perhaps the most notable statement in the assessment is the following: “Given the realities of the system, Gorbachev can only hope to lay the groundwork for a process of change that could take decades.” However, the assessment continues, if he fails to improve the quality of life of Soviet citizens, “the political gains of September 1988 could be short lived.”



  • 2 Information available as of December 1, 1988 [as indicated in original document].

3General Secretary Gorbachev has moved rapidly to capitalize on his strengthened political position. Since his dramatic leadership shakeup in September, Gorbachev and his new leadership team have been active on almost all policy fronts, issuing statements and taking actions that reflect a new, more favorable political balance for him at the top.

4There are still significant constraints on Gorbachev’s power, but he is in a better position than ever to advance his reform agenda. Although we cannot confidently predict specific policy moves, we identify below the areas that are likely to be or are being affected:

  • As both President and head of the party, Gorbachev now directly supervises the process of strengthening the legislative institutions and transferring some executive powers from conservative and resistant party bodies to the presidency. In Early December, the Supreme Soviet approved legislation outlining a restructured Supreme Soviet and electoral system, giving the General Secretary much of what he wanted. Gorbachev’s concomitant reorganization of the party Secretariat not only diminishes the authority of Yegor Ligachev—widely perceived as leader of the party’s conservative wing—but also makes it easier for him to cut back the size of the party apparatus. The reorganization and the creation of commissions that report directly to the Politburo virtually remove the Secretariat from its traditional role as a major power entity. The arrest for bribe taking of former top Uzbek officials who are members of the Central Committee suggests that the leadership changes have enabled Gorbachev to penetrate the protective walls of the party apparatus in prosecuting his war on corruption.
  • The leadership shakeup has apparently helped Gorbachev’s effort to give greater priority to consumer goods and services and may lead to an increased diversion of resources from military to domestic economic needs. Gorbachev acted before final decisions had to be made on the 1989 economic plan and before preparations of the 13th Five-Year Plan had gone too far. The leadership has adjusted the 1989 plan to benefit the consumer and social sphere, bolstered efforts to increase food production, and taken new steps to commit resources of defense industries to the production of consumer goods. The personnel changes are likely to facilitate the expansion of controversial economic programs, such as cooperative activity and land leasing. Ligachev’s continued responsibility for agriculture could pose a problem on the latter issue, but, as indicated by his public actions in October, Gorbachev now appears to be setting the agenda for agricultural reform. This agenda will continue to move in the direction of private leasing.
  • The new leadership team appears to be more tolerant of national assertive-ness. Since the leadership shakeup, the drive for greater political and economic autonomy in the Baltic Republics has gathered strength. Moscow has not cracked down on this activity—and has even encouraged some of it—apparently hoping to co-opt nationalist organizations that generally support Gorbachev’s reform goals. But even the more radical reformers in the leadership are not prepared to allow independence for national republics, and, if Moscow and republic leaders cannot successfully co-opt nationalist organizations, they will probably have to rein them in, using force if necessary.
  • Gorbachev’s political shakeup tilts the balance even further in favor of a more pragmatic, non-ideological approach to foreign affairs. Gorbachev’s two closest Politburo allies, Aleksandr Yakovlev and Eduard Shevardnadze, are now formally in charge of managing the party and government foreign policy decision-making bodies. The West is likely to face greater Soviet foreign policy activism, including bold—possibly unilateral—moves designed to generate international support for Soviet positions. The leadership’s efforts to pursue more pragmatic policies in the Third World are likely to be invigorated by the changes as well.
  • The prospects for advancing “new thinking” on national security issues have increased. The composition of the Defense Council has probably changed, reducing the representation of traditionalists who might constrain Gorbachev’s room for maneuver on arms control and oppose unilateral cuts in military force levels. In addition, Gorbachev is now in a better position to reform the national security decision making process to allow inputs from a wider array of interests and thereby avoid ill-considered uses of military force. As with foreign policy, the United States is likely to face accelerated Soviet activity on national security issues, particularly with respect to bilateral and multilateral arms control.

5Gorbachev has not achieved a decisive consolidation of power at the top. But he has probably strengthened his position in the leadership sufficiently to buy additional time to see if he can make perestroika work. Moreover, he has begun to build a political base outside of the party that could enhance his ability to exercise power for some time to come. Gorbachev’s display of political muscle sent a powerful signal throughout the system that foot-dragging and fence-sitting are no longer options. This should help him in the battle with the bureaucracy to implement policies that the leadership has agreed to.

6At the same time, Gorbachev’s power play may have raised public expectations of change beyond what the new leadership is willing or able to deliver. Indeed, the regime is facing new pressure from those who feel the proposed political reforms do not go far enough to promote democratization or increase regional autonomy.

7Political strength alone is not sufficient to guarantee the success of Gorbachev’s policies. The Soviet system is highly resistant to change, and political consensus at the top cannot overcome all the social and economic obstacles to successful reform. Given the realities of the system, Gorbachev can only hope to lay the groundwork for a process of change that could take decades.

8Gorbachev will be held increasingly accountable for any future failures of perestroika. Recognizing this, he is trying to use his strengthened position to push through policies designed to improve the economy and the quality of life of Soviet citizens. If he fails to achieve this goal, the political gains of September 1988 could be short lived. […]


9We do not believe that foreign policy was a major factor in Gorbachev’s personnel shakeup. Conflict over political and economic reform initiatives almost certainly precipitated Gorbachev’s decision to make sweeping changes in his leadership team. No current foreign policy issue is as pressing or seems to have generated as much controversy as the problems the regime faces on the domestic front. Nevertheless, the changes come at a time of sharpening debate over the historical and ideological roots of contemporary Soviet foreign policy, issues over which the leadership itself has been divided. The leadership changes have increased Gorbachev’s control over the foreign policy making process and tilted the balance decisively in favor of those who advocate breaking with the past and taking a more pragmatic, flexible, and non-ideological approach to foreign affairs. The pattern of recent positive Soviet moves toward China, Taiwan, South Korea, and the ASEAN countries, for example, will probably be reinforced by the new leadership team, as will Moscow’s less disruptive behavior at the United Nations and more evenhanded policy in the Middle East. Moscow’s efforts to sway Western public opinion can be expected to continue along the same track. In addition, Medvedev’s role in shaping recent Soviet policy toward the Communist Bloc suggests that tolerance for diversity in Eastern Europe will continue.

10The leadership shakeup represents a victory for those who have sought a revision of the ideological underpinnings of Soviet foreign policy to allow for greater operational flexibility. In a major speech to a conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs this summer, Shevardnadze virtually called for taking ideology out of international relations and said that peaceful coexistence can no longer be considered a specific tactical form of “class struggle.” This was a major break with a central ideological tenet of the Brezhnev era in which vigorous international competition and conflict with the West—especially in the Third World—were portrayed as consistent with a policy of detente.

11While Gorbachev was on vacation in August, Ligachev implicitly but unmistakably attacked Shevardnadze’s position, asserting publicly that “class interests” must predominate in international relations and that “raising the question in another way” only causes confusion among the forces of “social and national liberation,” a reference to Moscow’s traditional left-wing allies. Chebrikov later echoed Ligachev’s views, although in more subdued tones.

12Perhaps the most important personnel change affecting foreign policy was the removal of President Gromyko. Foreign Minister Shevardnadze and Central Committee secretary Yakovlev, Gorbachev’s closest Politburo allies, are now clearly in control of the management of foreign policy:

  • Although he was no longer playing a direct role in foreign affairs, President Gromyko almost certainly maintained his status in the Politburo and Defense Council, where, by virtue of his unrivaled experience in dealing with the West, he probably was an influential spokesman for those in the party skeptical of Gorbachev’s “new thinking.”
  • Yakovlev, as head of the Central Committee’s new International Policy Commission, oversees the work of the restructured International Department. This department, which now incorporates the former Bloc Relations Department, is headed by Valentin Falin, who appears to be a Yakovlev protege. In recent months, Shevardnadze has emerged as the leading advocate of change in the international debates over both the form and substance of foreign policy.
  • Medvedev, who as ideology secretary will probably keep a hand in inter-Communist relations, also is a new thinker—he sided with Shevardnadze and Yakovlev on the issue of deemphasizing the class content of Soviet foreign policy. However, his ties to Gorbachev are less clear.

13Anatoly Dobrynin’s appointment as a special assistant to Gorbachev in the Supreme Soviet Presidium will keep him involved in foreign affairs, but it is unclear how much influence he will have without the resources of the International Department to draw on. [7 lines excised] Although he seemed well on his way to becoming Gorbachev’s top foreign policy adviser when he moved to the Secretariat in 1986, he has since been increasingly overshadowed by Shevardnadze and Yakovlev.


14Like foreign policy, national security policy was not a key factor precipitating the leadership changes, but it is likely to be affected by the reconfigured power balance. As mentioned above, the leadership now appears willing to divert at least some resources from the military in order to achieve domestic economic goals. At a minimum, the prospect of military cutbacks should reinforce the leadership’s commitment to continuing—or even expanding—the arms control process. In addition, the new leadership team appears receptive to demands from reformers that, in order to avoid repeating what are now viewed by many Soviets as mistakes—such as committing Soviet troops to Afghanistan and deploying SS-20s in Europe—national security decisions must be made more judiciously, with input from a wider circle of specialists and, to some extent, from the public at large.

15The leadership changes should create a more favorable environment for “new thinking” in the Defense Council, where important decisions on arms control and military commitments abroad are made. Although the exact composition of the Defense Council is not clear, it is likely that it included Gromyko as President, Ligachev as “Second Secretary,” and Chebrikov as head of the KGB. Direct evidence of conflict over national security issues is sparse, but the public statements of these three men and some reporting suggests that they hold comparatively traditional views on national security issues and may have acted as brakes on some aspects of Gorbachev’s drive to implement “new thinking.” Gromyko is now out of the Defense Council and the other two may be forced to relinquish their seats because of the change in their responsibilities as Central Committee secretaries. It is not clear whether the new KGB chief, Vladimir Kryuchkov, will sit on the Defense Council without being a member of the Politburo.

16Besides removing potential obstacles to the reform of national security policy, Gorbachev may have added potential allies to the Defense Council. If Yakovlev was not already a member, he almost certainly is now by virtue of his new position as head of the Central Committee commission on international affairs. Med-vedev may also be a member as ideology secretary, although his claim to a seat is less certain as he does not hold the “second secretary” position. Both men may be more likely than the traditionalists to support bold new arms control proposals and unilateral troop reductions abroad.

17In addition to changing the composition of the Defense Council, the leadership changes have probably improved the prospects for change in the national security decision making process. In particular, by taking over the presidency, Gorbachev can seemingly move ahead with plans to increase the participation of representative state organs in key national security decisions—including those on defense procurement and the use of Soviet troops abroad. At the Foreign Ministry conference this summer, Shevardnadze called for Supreme Soviet committees to review national security policy decisions. Soviet officials have sought information on the U.S. legislative review process, apparently hoping to apply similar procedures in the USSR. While Gorbachev is unlikely to allow the Supreme Soviet to block him from taking diplomatic or military actions that have the full backing of the Politburo, he could use a legislative review process to his advantage if he is having difficulty rallying support for his initiatives in the party leadership.

18Gorbachev clearly hopes that a moderate line associated with his new leadership team will help overcome the damage done to Moscow’s image by the aggressive national security policies of the Brezhnev era. The leaders on the new team are cognizant of the public relations value of diplomatic flexibility and military restraint, and they are not likely to feel bound to policies developed under Brezhnev and Gromyko. Thus, we believe that the United States will be faced with even greater activism in Soviet foreign and national security policy than in the past, and that Moscow is likely to generate new initiatives on a broad range of international arms control issues. […]

19[Source: CIA declassification. On file at the National Security Archive.]


1 Gates, From the Shadows, 439.

2 Information available as of December 1, 1988 [as indicated in original document].

© Central European University Press, 2010

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