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Document No. 54: CIA Intelligence Assessment, “Rising Political Instability under Gorbachev: Understanding the Problem and Prospects for Resolution” April 1989

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1Only four months after concluding that Gorbachev’s process of change “could take decades,” the CIA now concludes that “[e]ven Gorbachev realizes … that it is far from certain that he will be able to control the process he has set in motion.” In this assessment, the Agency’s analysts, primarily in the Office of Soviet Analysis (SOVA), which is markedly more pessimistic than the rest of the intelligence community at this time, go beyond Ambassador Matlock’s prediction of impending bankruptcy to a new finding—that the Soviet Union is less stable today “than at any time since Stalin’s great purges in the 1930s.” Read with hindsight, this conclusion is quite prescient in that the second and third possible outcomes described here actually would come about: the hard-line reaction in the form of the attempted coup in August 1991, followed by the maximalist-reformer takeover and ouster of Gorbachev by December 1991. The specific policy recommendations made here fit perfectly with President Bush’s characteristic prudence and caution, urging that the West not be seen to “exploit the USSR’s internal weakness during this vulnerable period” because that “would undercut Gorbachev’s arguments that Soviet security can be maintained by diplomatic, rather than military, means and could threaten his reform process.”

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KEY JUDGMENTS1

  • 1 Information Available as of March 31, 1989 [as indicated in original document].

2The Soviet Union is less stable today than at any time since Stalin’s great purges in the 1930s. General Secretary Gorbachev clearly hopes that, by shaking up the Soviet system, he can rouse the population out of its lethargy and channel the forces he is releasing in a constructive direction. Even Gorbachev realizes, however, that it is far from certain that he will be able to control the process he has set in motion. That process could create so much turmoil and unrest that it will be very difficult for him to achieve his goals. In the extreme, his policies and political power could be undermined, and the political stability of the Soviet system could be fundamentally threatened.

3Gorbachev’s reforms—while yet to remedy existing problems—have caused new challenges to surface. Having seen their quality of life stagnate under Gorbachev, Soviet citizens are becoming increasingly skeptical of reform, seeing it more and more as a threat to the secure existence they recall they enjoyed under Brezhnev. Moreover, the aspects of reform that are potentially most destabilizing are only in their early stages. The political reforms being introduced could further erode central authority and could give disaffected groups new platforms to challenge the regime. Radical economic reform appears further away because the kinds of market-oriented measures required to meet economic objectives would heighten social tensions by raising prices, creating unemployment, and increasing income inequality. Moreover, such a transition could create a period of economic chaos and a sharp drop in production before the reforms began to yield positive results.

4Over the past two years, incidents of political unrest in the USSR, ranging from benign small gatherings to major acts of political violence, have sharply escalated. Under the banner of glasnost, Soviet citizens are organizing groups that could form the basis of a political opposition and are advancing a wide range of demands that challenge central authority. The most dangerous of these are the nationalist movements that have blossomed in many republics, unleashing centrifugal forces that, if unchecked, could threaten to tear the system apart. This increasing assertiveness by national minorities is provoking a backlash among the Russians, emboldening Russian nationalist groups and setting the stage for violent clashes in the republics where the Russians are in danger of becoming second-rate citizens.

5The next several years promise to be some of the most turbulent in Soviet history. Indeed, while the kind of turmoil now being created in the USSR has been effectively managed in many countries, in other countries it has contributed to the destabilization of the political system. There are too many unknowns to determine whether Gorbachev will be able to control the process he has started, or if it will increasingly come to control him, making a wide range of outcomes possible over the next five years:

  • If Gorbachev’s reforms begin to produce tangible results and if he is lucky, he should remain in power and prevent any of the potential problems he faces from getting out of control, while continuing to move his reforms ahead.
  • A growing perception within the leadership that reforms are threatening the stability of the regime could lead to a conservative reaction. This would probably, but not necessarily, involve a transfer of power—with a majority of the Politburo voting Gorbachev out, as happened with Khrushchev in 1964—and a repudiation of many aspects of reform.
  • Those pressing for a maximalist agenda could gain control of the political system as a result of democratization and glasnost—as happened in Czechoslovakia in 1968—and force Gorbachev out.
  • Should a sharp polarization of the leadership prevent it from acting resolutely to deal with a growing crisis, the prospects would increase for a conservative coup involving a minority of Politburo members supported by elements of the military and KGB. The prospects of a unilateral military coup are much more remote.
  • If ethnic problems mount, consumer and worker discontent grow, and divisions in the leadership prevent it from acting decisively, organized political opposition could threaten the regime. Under these conditions, opposition groups could come to share power, as Solidarity did in Poland in the early 1980s, or individual republics might win de facto independence.

6To get through this difficult period, the Soviet leadership can be expected to continue to place a high premium on creating a stable and predictable environment—minimizing the possibility of threats to Soviet interests from abroad. East-West relations, especially with the United States, will be particularly important. To help ease the strain on the economy and improve the prospects for delivering on promises to the consumer, the Soviet leadership will continue to vigorously pursue arms control and seek ways to reduce military spending.

7Gorbachev can be expected to seek more foreign policy successes to enhance his legitimacy, build his personal prestige, and distract attention from domestic problems. For this and other reasons, he can therefore be expected to maintain a very high profile in the international arena, continuing to advance major foreign policy initiatives. At times, however, domestic crises—some of which may not be visible on the surface—will probably distract the Soviet leadership from foreign policy. This could result in temporary reversals on specific issues, or unexplained periods of indecision—such as occurred during the U.S. Secretary of State’s October 1987 visit to Moscow in the midst of the Yeltsin crisis—when the Soviet leadership failed to set a date for a summit.

IMPLICATIONS FOR THE UNITED STATES

8The next several years promise to be turbulent ones in Soviet domestic affairs, regardless of the path followed. There will almost certainly be continued turmoil within both Soviet society and the leadership. Such ferment is not only a natural byproduct of the reform process, but it would also result from any effort to turn that process back. Consequently, continued or even increased turmoil in itself cannot be taken as an indication that Gorbachev or the political stability of the Soviet Union is in jeopardy. Indeed, it could be an indication that the reform process is moving ahead and tackling the difficult issues that need to be addressed to build a more effective system. […]

9In the near term, Gorbachev can be expected to continue a foreign policy line that will create the most favorable international climate for the changes he is trying to bring about in the Soviet Union. Consequently, he will continue to place a high premium on creating a stable and predictable international environment, minimizing the possibility of threats from abroad to Soviet interests. To this end, the leadership is likely to continue to take a more flexible approach in most areas of foreign policy, and the prospects for the USSR becoming engaged in regional conflicts will remain relatively small.

10East-West relations, especially with the United States, will be particularly important. To help ease the strain on the economy and improve the prospects for delivering on promises to the consumer, the Soviet leadership will continue to vigorously pursue arms control and seek ways to reduce military spending. More important, the Soviet leadership will need to feel confident that other nations will not try to exploit the USSR’s internal weakness during this vulnerable period. A perception that the West was actively trying to do this—particularly in the field of military competition—would undercut Gorbachev’s arguments that Soviet security can be maintained by diplomatic, rather than military, means and could threaten his reform process.

11Gorbachev can also be expected to seek more foreign policy successes to enhance his legitimacy, build up his personal prestige, and distract attention from domestic problems. As long as his reforms continue to produce results, he can be expected to continue to seek these successes by the conciliatory route. Gorbachev can therefore be expected to maintain a very high profile in the international arena, continuing to advance major foreign policy initiatives. At times, however, domestic crises—some of which may not be visible on the surface—will probably distract the Soviet leadership from foreign policy. This could result in temporary reversals on specific issues or unexplained periods of indecision—such as occurred during the U.S. Secretary of State’s visit to Moscow in October 1987 in the midst of the Yeltsin crisis, when the Soviet leadership failed to set a date for a summit.

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

Notes

1 Information Available as of March 31, 1989 [as indicated in original document].

© Central European University Press, 2010

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