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Twenty-five years ago: October-December 1991: End of the Cold War?   1 comment

Links and Exchanges

In the late autumn/ fall of 1991, with the Cold War coming to an end, Americans, Hungarians and other Europeans became urgently and actively engaged in redefining their relationships in this new era. As a British teacher from Coventry living and working in its twin town of Kecskemét in Hungary, married to its citizens, I continued to re-establish links which had lain dormant since the Hungary’s involvement in the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, especially through educational exchanges, organised through the Hungarian Ministry of Education and the (then) European Community ‘s Tempus Programme. Besides the Peace Corps volunteers who continued to arrive to all parts of the country, the United States and Hungary had established a joint commission for educational exchange, which included a Hungarian-American Fulbright Commission. Again, Fulbright scholars began arriving in a variety of Hungarian towns that autumn, placed in schools and colleges, and Hungarian teachers were able to travel to the USA in exchange.

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Diplomatic Goals

In October 1991, Hungarian Prime Minister József Antall made a ‘private’ visit to Washington. Just over a year earlier, Antall had been sworn in as PM of the first freely elected Hungarian Parliament since that of 1945. In his first address, he had pointed out that…

… the new government will be a European government, and not only in the geographical sense of the word. We stand for the tradition of democracy, pluralism and openness. We want to return to the European heritage but, at the same time , also to those values that Europe has created in the course of the past forty years, in the wake of the terrible lessons and experience of World War II.

At the Washington ‘summit’, President George Bush reiterated the US commitment to the economic and political transformation of Hungary, particularly in view of the impending dissolution of the Soviet Union. Antall also expressed concern about the civil war in Yugoslavia which was just beginning at that time. At their meeting in Krakow on 6 October, the Foreign Ministers of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, issued a joint statement on their wish to become involved in NATO activities. On 1 July, the Warsaw Pact had been disbanded by the Protocol of Prague, which had annulled the 1955 Treaty (Hungary’s Parliament passed the Act ratifying this on 18 July) and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary had been completed in June.  COMECON, the economic organisation of what was now a collapsing empire was also being disbanded. Parallel to that, Hungary had started the process of catching up with the community of developed Western democracies. Already, by the end of 1991, the country had concluded an Association Agreement with the European Community.

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NATO accession

Along with the Czech Republic and Poland, Hungary was among the first countries of Central and Eastern Europe invited to start talks on NATO accession. The invitation showed that Hungary was taking full advantage of the opportunities offered by the social and political changes of 1989-91 and that, having regained the sovereignty it had last lost in November 1956, it had made the right decision on its security policy goals and how to achieve them. Neutrality was no longer an option. A consensus was emerging among the parties represented in the new Parliament on the well-known triple set of goals… Euro-Atlantic integration, development of good-neighbourly relations and support for the interests of Hungarian communities living abroad. These remained valid throughout the following decade and into the twenty-first century.

In another sign of its growing international integration, on 20-21 October, at the plenary meeting of North Atlantic Assembly in Madrid, Secretary General of NATO, Manfred Wörner announced that it would hold its 1995 session in Budapest. Hungary was represented by Foreign Minister, Géza Jeszenszky and Tamás Wachsler, a FIDESZ Member of Parliament, both of whom gave presentations. The Madrid summit constituted a historic moment in the redefinition of the security roles of European institutions at a time when global and regional changes, and the democratic developments in the central-eastern European states reached a point which coincided with the interests of both the major Western powers and the southern European states. Through its (then) comparatively advanced democratic development and previous historical experience, Hungary was seen as well-suited to figure among the states to be included in the first wave of NATO enlargement. Such experience stemmed, most importantly, from the Revolution of 1956 and its struggle for sovereignty and neutrality, as well as from the initiatives it had taken from within the Warsaw Pact and the UN in the 1980s. A week after Madrid (see picture above), PM Antall visited NATO Headquarters in Brussels, where he addressed the North Atlantic Council, expressing the wish of the Hungarian Government to establish closer cooperation with NATO, including the creation of an institutionalised consultation and information system.

On 30 October, at the invitation of the Minister of Defence, Lajos Für, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General John Galvin, visited Hungary and met József Antall. A week later (7-8 November), a summit meeting of the North Atlantic Council was held in Rome at which the Heads of State/ Government approved the Alliance’s new Strategic Concept which supported the efforts of the central-eastern European countries towards reforms and offered participation in the relevant forums of the Alliance. On this, they issued the Rome Declaration on Peace and Cooperation:

We have consistently encouraged the development of democracy in the Soviet Union and the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe. We therefore applaud the commitment of these countries to political and economic reform following the rejection of totalitarian communist rule by their peoples. We salute the newly recovered independence of the Baltic States. We will support all steps in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe towards reform and will give practical assistance to help them succeed in this difficult transition. This is based on our own conviction that our own security is inseparably linked to that of all other states in Europe…

Wishing to enhance its contribution to the emergence of a Europe whole and free, our Alliance at its London summit extended to the Central and Eastern European countries the hand of friendship and established regular diplomatic liaison.  Together we signed the Paris Joint Declaration… Our extensive programme of high level visits, exchanges of views on security and other related issues, intensified military contacts, and exchanges of expertise in various fields has demonstrated its value and contributed greatly towards building a new relationship between NATO and these countries. This is a dynamic process: the growth of democratic institutions throughout central and eastern Europe and encouraging cooperative experiences, as well as the desire of these countries for closer ties, now call for our relations to be broadened, intensified and raised to a qualitatively new level…

Therefore, as the next step, we intend to develop a more institutional relationship of consultation and cooperation on political and security issues.   

The NATO summit in Rome was one of the most significant international consultations to take place as to how to deal with these new security threats. The heads of state identified the goals and tasks to be achieved and to be realistically achievable by the Western European organisations over the following four to five years, as well as the mechanisms which would be required to fulfill them.

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Hungary & The End of a Bipolar World

While this summit meeting was taking place, the de facto collapse of the so-called socialist word order was proceeding apace. These new processes within NATO were manifested mainly by the young democracies of central-eastern Europe that had just regained their independence from the USSR and its now defunct Warsaw Pact. However, they were also informed by global developments, such as the impact of the Gulf War and its lessons and conclusions. The dissolution of the bipolar world order was not simply related to the collapse of the USSR, but to threats to security originating in ethnicity-based conflicts in the Middle East and the Balkans.

The renewed Republic of Hungary found itself in a unique situation, since with the disintegration of the Soviet Union to the east of it, and the break-up of both the Yugoslav Socialist Republic and Czechoslovakia on its southern and northern borders, it suddenly found itself with seven neighbours rather than five. From the spring of 1991, along a borderline of 600 kilometres, the crisis in the former Yugoslavia had a considerable impact on Hungary’s legislators and executive authorities at a time when it had just embarked on the path of civilian democratic development. The armed clashes, which became more violent and intense from July onwards, were taking place were predominantly along the Hungarian border and there were incidents across the border of lesser or greater scale, the most serious of which was the bomb which fell (accidentally and without exploding) on the large village of Barcs on Hungarian territory. Trade also became affected by border closures which were necessary to prevent gun-running to the militias, and thousands of refugees escaped the violence into Hungary. There was an emerging consensus among the Hungarian political élite that the only possibility of breaking away from the nightmare scenario of a disintegrating central-eastern European region was through accession to the integrating West. The reunification of Germany, although it could not serve as a model, proved that the institutional anchoring of a former COMECON and Warsaw Pact country was possible.

The Republic of Hungary concluded that its geopolitical situation had changed completely, and a process took place within NATO to realise Euro-Atlantic integration in the region through NATO enlargement. In this process, the Hungarian defence forces earned worldwide recognition and the government of the Republic succeeded in fulfilling its strategic foreign policy objectives while in domestic policy, it established the conditions for stable and democratic development. Naturally, this took a full term of government to achieve, but the fact that the process began in the crucible which was the end of the Cold War, when states were collapsing on almost every border, is a truly remarkable tribute to the transition government in Hungary.

Demise of Gorbachev & the Soviet Union

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In the aftermath of the failed coup in August, the Soviet republics voted to reject Gorbachev’s Union Treaty; the new state would be a confederation. On 30 November, Yeltsin’s Russia, the leading power in the new association, took control of the Soviet Foreign Ministry and of all its embassies abroad. In Minsk on 8 December, Yeltsin for Russia, Leonid Kravchuk for Ukraine, and Stanislaw Shushkevich for Belarus, the three Slav states, without bothering to take the other republics with them, signed a pact ending the USSR and creating instead the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). By telephone they told first George Bush, then Mikhail Gorbachev, what they had done. Gorbachev, humiliated, next day denied their right to have done it; but the Russian parliament ratified the commonwealth agreement, and within days all but one of the other republics joined.

In Moscow a week later, James Baker saw both Yeltsin and Gorbachev, and had it brought to his attention that the Soviet military was now backing Yeltsin and the CIS.  Gorbachev accepted this as a fait accompli, announcing that all central structures of the Soviet Union would cease to exist at the end of the year. The four republics in possession of nuclear weapons  – Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan – announced that they would abide by and implement the cuts in arms and nuclear weapons agreed to by Bush and Gorbachev.

Meanwhile, both the CIS and the Russian government proved incapable of coping with the crisis in southern Russia. The United Nations, the European Community, the Council for Security and Cooperation in Europe were, to begin with, equally ineffective in dealing with the conflicts in the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. In particular, it became obvious that the UN was unable to create the mechanisms needed to handle these conflicts and to bring the political and military conflicts to a solution. This led on to the question as to what NATO’s responsibilities could be in response to the new risk factors of regional character that were emerging in the early 1990s.

On 19 December, the Foreign Ministers of the newly independent Central and Eastern European states met in Brussels, together with those of the full member states of NATO. Foreign Minister Géza Jeszenszky again represented Hungary. The Soviet Union was also invited, and its name appears on the final communiqué issued by the North Atlantic Council. The purpose of the meeting, as decided at the Rome summit, was to issue a joint political declaration to launch this new era of partnership and to define further the modalities and content of this process. The following day, 20 December, the inaugural meeting of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) was attended by representatives of the sixteen full NATO members and the nine central-eastern European nations. It was established to integrate them into the Alliance:

Our consultations and cooperation will focus on security and related issues where Allies can offer their experience and expertise. They are designed to aid in fostering a sense of security and confidence among these countries and to help them transform their societies and economies, making democratic change irreversible.

… We welcome the continuing progress towards democratic pluralism, respect for human rights and market economies. We encourage these nations to continue their reforms and contribute to… arms control agreements. 

Just five days later, On 25 December 1991, Christmas Day in central-western Europe, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ceased to exist. The Red Flag, with its golden hammer and sickle, prophesying a worldwide workers’ revolution that never came, was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time. For Gorbachev this was an unintended consequence of the reform process, perestroika, that he had started. He retired from public life, since he no longer had an office from which to resign. He telephoned his farewells to Bush at Camp David. He wished George and Barbara Bush a merry Christmas. He was, he said, still convinced that keeping the independent republics within the Soviet Union would have been the better way forward, but hoped that the US would co-operate instead with the CIS and would help Russia economically. The “little suitcase” carrying the nuclear button had been transferred, constitutionally, to the Russian president. He concluded by saying, you may therefore feel at ease as you celebrate Christmas, and sleep quietly tonight. How long the West could sleep easily with Boris Yeltsin in charge of the red button   turned out to be a moot point, of course.

Two hours later Gorbachev delivered a long, self-justifying television address to the citizens of the fifteen former Soviet republics. He insisted that the USSR could not have gone on as it was when he took office in 1985. We had to change everything, he said. Bush left Camp David for Washington to make his Christmas broadcast. He praised Gorbachev, announced formal diplomatic recognition of the new republics, and called on God to bless their peoples. For over forty years, he said, the United States had led the West…

… in the struggle against communism and the threat it posed to our most precious values. That confrontation is over.

The Fate of the Unions

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On 28 January 1992, in his State of the Union address for what was to be an election year (above), George Bush proclaimed that the United States had won the Cold War. Other contemporaries have now been joined by some historians in claiming the same. Speaking the same month, Gorbachev preferred to hail it in the following terms:

I do not regard the end of the Cold War as a victory for one side… The end of the Cold War is our common victory.

Certainly, at the end of this forty-five-year period of East-West tensions that we continue to refer to as The Cold War, the United States remained the one great power and the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. Reagan, and then Bush, had cautiously and skilfully avoided giving the reactionaries in Moscow a good reason to reverse perestroika, but it was Gorbachev who made the more dramatic moves to end the arms race and the Soviet control of its satellite states in central-Eastern Europe. He surrendered Communist rule in those states and introduced a multi-party system in the USSR itself. He failed to achieve significant economic reform and could not prevent the breakup of the Union, but he played a major role in the manner of the ending of the great power conflict. As the former State Department analyst commented,

He may not have done so alone, but what happened would not have happened without him; that cannot be said of anyone else.

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The Cost of the Conflict

At the end of 1991, The United States stood alone as the only remaining superpower, with a booming economy. The poor of the US, however, could certainly have used some of the resources committed to armaments over the previous forty years. Martin Luther King Jr.’s comment that Lyndon Johnson’s promise of a Great Society was lost on the battlefield of Vietnam was not short of the mark, and might well be extended to explain the overall failure of successive US administrations to redirect resources to dispossessed and alienated Americans in the decades that have followed President Bush’s triumphalist declaration. Perestroika never made it to the USA, where Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex remained more firmly entrenched at the end of the Cold War than it had been during his presidency.

Above all, the cost of the Cold War must be measured in human lives, however. Though a nuclear catastrophe was averted by a combination of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) and the watchfulness of those operating surveillance systems on both sides, the ‘proxy’ wars and conflicts did take their toll in military and ‘collateral’ civilian casualties: millions in Korea and Vietnam; hundreds of thousands in Angola, Mozambique and Namibia; tens of thousands in Nicaragua and El Salvador; thousands in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Eastern Europe. Some of the post-colonial regional conflicts might well have happened anyway, but superpower involvement, direct or indirect, made each conflict more deadly. We also need to add to the victims of open hostilities the numbers and names of those who fell foul of the state security and intelligence forces. As well as those, the cost to their home countries of those forced to flee in terror for their lives can never be outweighed by the significant contributions they made their host countries as refugees.

The Cold War also stifled thought: for decades the peoples of Eastern Europe, living under tyranny, were effectively “buried alive” – cut off from and abandoned by the West. Given the choice and the chance, Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Slovenes, Croatians, Albanians and Serbs  all rejected the various forms of communism which had been imposed on them. After the fall of Allende in Chile, only Fidel Castro in Cuba, until today (26 November 2016) the great Cold warrior and survivor, kept the Red flag flying and the cause of the socialist revolution alive with some remaining semblance of popular support. I heard of his death, aged ninety, after I began to write this piece, so I’ll just make this one comment, in this context, on our right to make judgements on him, based on the text of one of his earliest speeches after coming to power in the popular Marxist revolution forty-seven years ago: History and historians may absolve him: His subsequent victims surely will not. Surely, however, his passing will mark the end of communism in the western hemisphere, and especially in ‘Latin’ America.

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Legacies, leaders and losers 

Then there is the great question mark left hanging over the twenty-first century: China? The world’s most populous nation is still ruled over by a Communist autocracy, and one which has often played a key behind-the-scenes role in the Cold War, not least in Hungary, where it helped to change Khrushchev’s mind as to what to do about the October 1956 Uprising and then insisted on severe retribution against Imre Nagy and his ministers following the Kádár ‘coup’. It may no longer follow the classical Marxist-Leninist lines of Mao’s Little Red Book, now more revered on the opposition front benches in the UK Parliament than it is in the corridors of power in Beijing, but it may yet succeed in reconciling Communist Party dictatorship with free market economics. Or will the party’s monopoly of power ultimately be broken by the logic of a free market in ideas and communication? That would leave a dangerously isolated North Korea as the only remaining communist dictatorship with nuclear weapons, surely a ‘leftover’ issue on the Cold War plate which the global community will have to attend to at some point soon.

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It is hard now to realize or even to recall it, but whole generations in the last century lived with the fear that one crisis or another – Korea, Vietnam, Berlin, Cuba, Suez, Hungary – might trigger a nuclear apocalypse, as the two superpowers were too often prepared to go to the brink. There was also, more omnipresent than we ever realized, the chance of a Dr Strangelove scenario, a nuclear accident, which we now know had much to do with the shift in President Reagan’s policy at the beginning of his second administration in 1984. Fear was endemic, routine, affecting every aspect of every human relationship on much of the globe. The advice to every household in the UK government’s 1970s Protect and Survive was famously lampooned as finally, put your head between your legs and kiss your arse goodbye! Sex was about making love while you still could, and with whoever you could. It wasn’t about bringing more children into the world to live with the fear of fear itself. Parents in many countries remember looking at their children when the world news grew grimmer, hoping that they would all live to see another day, let alone another generation growing up. As teachers, it became our duty to terrify our teenagers into understanding the reality of nuclear war by ‘reeling’ into schools The War Game. The happiest people on the planet were the poorest, those who lived without newspapers, radios, televisions and satellite dishes, blissful in their ignorance and therefore fearless of the world outside their villages and neighbourhoods. Except in some corners of the globe, that fear has been lifted from us, essentially because the world’s leaders recognised and responded to these basic human instincts and emotions, not for any grand ideological, geopolitical goals and policies. But the ignorance, or innocence, had gone too, so the potential for fear of global events to return was only a turn or a click away.

In the end, those in command, on both sides, put humanity’s interests higher than short-term national advantages. Watching The War Game had also worked for Ronald Reagan. Teachers could now stop showing scenes of terrible mutual destruction and start to build bridges, to bring together speakers from Peace through NATO with those from CND, to forge links, to educate and empower across continents. Even then, during the more hopeful final five years of 1986-91, we had to trust our ‘leaders’ in crisis after crisis. Even after glasnost, we could not be sure what exactly they were doing, why and how they were doing it, and what the outcomes would be.

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and survived… so wrote Jeremy Isaacs for his ground-breaking television series on The Cold War. As we celebrate twenty-five years since its ending, still lurching from one regional and international crisis to another, are we in danger of celebrating prematurely? Do we need a more serious commemoration of all those who were sacrificed for our collective security, to help us remember our sense of foreboding and genuine fear? With a seemingly less skilful generation of evermore populist, nationalist and autocratic leaders in ‘charge’ across the continents, are we about to re-enter a new age of fear, if not another period of ‘cold war’? How will the seek to protect us from this? How will they ensure our survival? After all, there’s only one race, the human race, and we all have to win it, otherwise we will all be losers, and our oikoumene, the entire created order, will be lost for eternity.

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Secondary Sources:

Rudolf Joó (ed), (1999), Hungary: A Member of NATO. Budapest: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Hungary.

Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Transworld Publishers/ Bantam Press

Marc J Susser (2007), The United States & Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy. Washington: US Department of State.

A Fateful Fortnight in the Cold War: August 1991: At a Villa on the Black Sea and in Moscow…   Leave a comment

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The Failed Coup that ended Communist Rule

In August, holiday-time, Gorbachev went to his villa at Foros on the Black Sea. In June the old-guard Communists had tried, unsuccessfully, to unseat him by constitutional means in the Congress of People’s Deputies. Now they attempted to remove him by force. In Moscow, early in the morning of 19 August, as Gorbachev’s holiday was drawing to a close, radio and tv began broadcasting a statement by the State Committee for the State of Emergency. It claimed that the President was ill and unable to perform his duties; Vice-President Yanayev had assumed the powers of the Presidency, and a state of emergency had been declared. It was a coup, but to the ordinary citizens of Moscow and Leningrad, this was, as yet, unclear. Information about Gorbachev’s whereabouts and state of health was hard to come by. The television schedule kept changing, with the ballet Swan Lake replacing the usual diet of news bulletins.

The true story was that the previous day, Sunday 18th August, a delegation from Moscow had arrived at the seaside villa to see Gorbachev. Before they were admitted, he tried to telephone out, but the phone lines had already been cut. At sea, naval craft manoeuvred menacingly near the shore. The conspirators pushed their way in: Oleg Baklanov, Gorbachev’s deputy at the Defence Council; Party Secretary Oleg Shenin; Deputy Defence Minister General Valentin Varennikov; Gorbachev’s Chief of Staff, Valery Boldin. They tried to force the President to approve the declaration of a state of emergency, to resign and to hand over his authority to Yanayev. Gorbachev refused, for to do otherwise would have legitimised the plot. They put him under house arrest, cut off from communication with the outside world, and left.

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The plotters included several other members of the government: Prime Minister Pavlov; KGB Chairman Vladimir Kryuchkov; Interior Minister Pugo; Minister of Defence Minister Dmitry Yazov. Most of them had been urging Gorbachev for months to impose emergency rule. Now they imposed it themselves, and hoped he would go along with it. He had underestimated their strength; they had underestimated their his determination to resist. His refusal to give in was brave, but the real struggle was to be in Moscow.

In every Moscow ministry and in the republics, every civil servant had to make up his or her mind what to do. Most temporised and waited to see how things would turn out. Enough of them, together with those in the military and the KGB refused to obey orders from the Emergency Committee to ensure that the coup would not succeed. Gorbachev’s insistence on moving towards democracy was paying off. Resistance was led from the White House, the seat of the Russian Parliament, by Boris Yeltsin. Usually at odds with Gorbachev, stood firm. He denounced the coup and those behind it, rallying support for legitimate government and a liberal future rather than a return to the dark ages of totalitarian tyranny. He called for a general strike, so that those who had the courage to support him went to the White House, ringed by troops and tanks, to declare their support. Eduard Shevardnadze was one of the first to arrive.

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President Bush was also on holiday in Kennebunkport in Maine, where he had gone to bed on the Sunday night of Gorbachev’s ‘arrest’. When the telephone rang with the news from Moscow, he faced a classic diplomatic dilemma as to what he would say in his statement early the next day. It was agreed that he would talk to the press early the next morning, and he met them at eight, praising Gorbachev as a “historic figure”, hedging on Yanayev and stopping short of outright denunciation when he called the seizure of power “extra-constitutional.” He insisted that the US reaction would aim not to “over-excite the American people or the world… we will conduct our diplomacy in a prudent fashion, not driven by excess.” It was not much more than wait and see.

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At Foros, the Gorbachevs were listening to events in Moscow on the BBC World Service, using a transistor radio which their captors had failed to confiscate. Raisa recorded her indignation in her diary at the reporting on state television. Kazakhstan’s President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, was reported to have appealed to the people of his republic “to remain calm and cool and maintain public order. She noted that there was “not a word about the ousting of the President of the USSR.” Her husband sent a message to Yanayev: Cancel what you’ve done and convene the Congress of People’s Deputies or the USSR’s Supreme Soviet.

On the night of 20 August, the first blood was spilt. Three young men were killed by armoured personnel carriers moving towards the White House in support of the coup. Had the Emergency Committee been more resolute, many more lives would certainly have been lost. They were hesitant, however, unsure of themselves and their supporters, perhaps even of their cause. The coup had already failed, but in the rest of eastern Europe and beyond, this had not become clear. In Hungary, many families were away from home at their weekend houses, enjoying St Stephen’s Day, the national holiday and listening occasionally to their transistors, dreading the prospect that the recently withdrawn Soviet troops would soon be rolling back into their country, as they had done in 1956. I remember being on holiday with my father-in-law, who was firm in his view that this was more than a possibility if the coup succeeded.

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It was announced the following day that a delegation would be permitted to leave Moscow for the Crimea to see for themselves that Gorbachev was gravely ill. At Foros this caused alarm. The couple was already boiling all the food they were given in case of poisoning. Would the plotters now try to make to make their statements come true and somehow bring about Gorbachev’s death? Meanwhile, back in Moscow, crowds surrounded the Russian Parliament building, where Boris Yeltsin led the resistance against the unconstitutional coup (pictured above). The delegation, which actually wanted to negotiate, reached Foros at 5 p.m. and asked to see Gorbachev. It included Kryuchkov, Yazov, Baklanov, and Anatoli Lukyanov, chairman of the Supreme Soviet. Gorbachev refused to see them until proper communications were restored. At 5:45 p.m., the telephones were reconnected. Gorbachev rang Yeltsin who said:

Mikhail Sergeyevich, my dear man, are you alive? We have been holding firm here for forty-eight hours.

Shortly afterwards, a Russian delegation arrived, led by Alexander Rutskoi, Yeltsin’s Vice-President, to bring Gorbachev and his family back to Moscow. Without packing, they prepared to leave. Later, Kryuchkov wrote to Gorbachev, expressing remorse; Yazov, with his excellent military record, confessed that he had made an ass of himself; Lukyanov had no good answer to Gorbachev’s question: “Why did you not exercise your own constitutional powers?” In Moscow, Yanayev took to the bottle; Pugo shot his wife and then himself when the loyalists came to arrest him; Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, Gorbachev’s military advisor, also committed suicide. He left a note stating, “everything I have worked for is being destroyed.” Bessmertnykh, who had been careful not to commit himself either way, had to resign. When Gorbachev returned to Moscow on 22 August, he made a spontaneous statement:

I have come back from Foros to another country, and I myself am a different man now.

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However, the restored President soon gave the impression that he thought things could carry on as before, even reaffirming his belief in the Communist Party and its renewal. This was not what many in Moscow needed to hear as, on 23 August, Gorbachev was first jeered in the Russian Parliament and then humiliated when Yeltsin, without warning, put into his hand a set of minutes he had not seen before  and forced him to read them out loud on live television.  The document implicated his own Communist colleagues in the coup against him. Yeltsin was now in charge in Moscow and both Russian viewers and  US diplomats watching these pictures knew that Gorbachev was finished, destroyed by a failed coup.

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By this time, Gorbachev had also lost power away from Moscow, in the republics. On the 20 and 21 August, Estonia and Latvia declared independence, joining Lithuania, which had declared its freedom from the USSR in 1990, which it now reaffirmed. The republics of Ukraine, Belarus, Moldavia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kirghizia, Tadzhikistan, and Armenia, all followed suit soon after. On 24 August, Gorbachev resigned as leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, disbanding the Central Committee. On 29 August, the Soviet Communist Party effectively dissolved itself.  After seven decades, Soviet Communism, as an ideology and a political organism, was on its death-bed. Meanwhile, the Russian tricolour was paraded in mourning for those few who died during the failed coup.

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Source:

Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Transworld Publishers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“If Perestroika Fails…”: The Last Summer of the Cold War – June-July 1991.   1 comment

President Gorbachev had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, but gave his acceptance speech in Oslo on 5 June 1991, twenty-five years ago. In it he warned that, if perestroika fails, the prospect of entering a new peaceful period of history will vanish, at least for the foreseeable future. The message was received, but not acted upon.  Gorbachev had embarked on perestroika; it was up to him and his ministers to see that it did not fail. Outside the Soviet Union, his Peace Prize was acclaimed, and the consequences of his constructive actions were apparent everywhere. In June 1991 Soviet troops completed their withdrawal from Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The Czechs and Hungarians cheered as the last Soviet tanks left. At the same time, both Comecon, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance and the Warsaw Pact were formally dissolved.

Two sets of arms negotiations remained as unfinished business between Presidents Bush and Gorbachev: START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) and CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe). The CFE agreement set limits to the number of conventional arms – tanks, artillery, aircraft – allowed between the Atlantic and the Urals. It effectively ended the military division of the continent. It had been signed in Paris the previous November, 1990, but the following summer some CFE points of interpretation were still giving trouble. The Soviets sought to exclude naval units from the count, insisting that they might need them for internal purposes in the Baltic and Black seas. The United States argued that everything should be counted, and it was not until June 1991 in Vienna that the final text was installed, the culmination of two years of negotiation. Below are some of the thousands of tanks which were put up for sale as the CFE agreement came into force. These armaments had helped keep the peace, but in the end only the junkyard awaited them.

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START’s broad objective was also quite clear: the reduction of long-range strategic weapons. Achieving this was complicated. Should the two sides reduce the number of warheads or the number of missile types carrying the warheads? The Soviets had two new missile types in development, so they wanted to download warheads instead. The US was against this, and the Soviets were negotiating against a clock that was ticking away the continued existence of the USSR. Eventually, just minutes before Bush and Gorbachev were due to meet in London, on 17 July, minor concessions  produced a text acceptable to both sides of the table. A fortnight later, on 31 July, the two presidents signed START 1 in Moscow. The two superpowers had agreed to reduce their nuclear warheads and bombs to below nine thousand, including 1,500 delivery vehicles. Thus began a new sequence of strategic arms reduction agreements.

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Meanwhile, within the new Russian Republic, Boris Yeltsin had become its President on 12 June, elected by a landslide. He received 57% of the eighty million voted cast, becoming Russia’s first ever democratically elected leader. However, the Soviet Union, including Russia, was desperate to receive American economic aid; it was no longer its strength as a nuclear superpower which posed a threat to world peace, but its economic weakness. Gorbachev calculated that the US would recognise this and, in a ‘Grand Bargain’ offer massive dollar aid – say, twenty billion a year over five years – to do for the Soviet Union what the Marshall Plan had done for Western Europe after the Second World War. A group of Soviet and American academics tried to sell this plan to the two governments. Some of Gorbachev’s colleagues denounced this ‘Grand Bargain’ as a Western conspiracy, but, in any case the US was not interested – the USSR was a poor credit risk and President Bush had no backing in Washington for bailing out the rival system.

The climax of Gorbachev’s attempts to get American aid in propping up the ruble and in stocking Soviet shelves with consumer goods came in London on 17 July at the Group of Seven (G7) meeting, the world’s financial top table. His problem remained that of convincing the US that he was serious about moving directly to a free market economy, as Boris Yeltsin had sought to do when he had proclaimed himself a free marketeer on a visit to Washington. At the G7 meeting, Gorbachev was unconvincing, and left empty-handed.

After the START 1 summit in Moscow on 31 July, George Bush kept his promise to visit Ukraine, and went on to Kiev. The Ukrainians were looking for US support in their attempt to break away from Moscow and declare independence. Bush perceived how perilous Gorbachev’s position really was. In June the ‘old guard’ Communists had been foiled in their attempt to oust him by passing resolutions in the Congress of People’s Deputies, the so-called ‘constitutional coup’. The CIA was now warning of a hard-line coup to dislodge him from power, this time using force. The warning was passed on to Gorbachev, who ignored it. Bush didn’t want to do anything to make matters worse. In Kiev he denounced the grim consequences of “suicidal nationalism.” Croatia and Slovenia, having left the Yugoslav federation, were already at war. The Ukrainians were disappointed. Bush’s speech went down even less well in the United States, where the president’s own right-wing critics picked up a journalist’s verdict and damned it as Bush’s “Chicken Kiev” speech.

Andrew James

Source: Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), The Cold War. London: Bantham Press.

These Weeks in the Twentieth Century   Leave a comment

1916: The Battle of Verdun

After a bombardment using a million shells, a hundred thousand German troops attacked the French city of Verdun. Rather than a full-frontal attack, small groups of stormtroopers went forward into action with flame-throwers and grenades. The Germans gained the upper hand and took the large fort of Douaumont on 25 February  without a shot being fired. German church bells were rung and a holiday granted in celebration.

The bloody battle continued through the spring and summer and into the autumn; Douaumont was recaptured almost eight months to the day after it was taken. German general Erich von Falkenhayn had claimed the siege of the city would ‘bleed the French white’, but the casualties were high on both sides; the French lost 540,000 lives, and the Germans 430,000. After the Battle of Verdun, the Germans did not undertake another large-scale offensive on the Western Front until the spring of 1918.

Two-thirds of the whole French Army took part in the battle. General Nivelle’s memorable Order of the Day issued on 23 June was:

Vous ne les laisserez pas passer, mes comrades.

(You shall not let them pass, my comrades.)

It is estimated that a hundred thousand corpses lie under the battlefield to this day.

Introduction of Conscription in Britain

Meanwhile, the Military Service Act brought military conscription into force in March, for the first time in British history. All single men aged between 18 and 41 were eligible for call-up (married men were included from May and in 1918 the upper age limit was increased to 51). Exemptions were granted to those who were unfit, ill, in essential jobs (such as munitions workers, miners and farmers), ministers of religion and those who had a concientious objection to combatant service.

1941: A Transylvanian Jew in Budapest

By the beginning of 1940, most young Jewish men in Hungary were already in labour battalions, and the young men of Kolozsvár, now part of Hungary again (see map below), were swiftly called up to join them. The Jewish journalist Rezső Kasztner was one of these young men, serving for a few months in a battalion of mostly Jewish intellectuals, building military fortifications in northern Transylvania. He managed to negotiate a special dispensation for medical reasons and returned to Kolozsvár, where he continued to to work on behalf of the Hungarian refugees from Romania. He found that bribery was still effective among the officials, and managed to win exemption cards for sickly Jews and the sons of widows. He had connections on the black market, knew where to trade currencies, and what the going rates were for bribes in dollars and Swiss francs. Local government officials would still see him without an appointment and continued to treat him with the deference due to a member of a prominent Jewish-Hungarian family.

However, in January 1941, members of the Romanian Iron Guard had launched a rebellion to overthrow Antonescu’s Romanian government. Its ranks were swelled by nationalist fervour and the hope for easy loot, so the guards hunted for Jews in villages and small towns. Thousands were herded into box-cars and left on railway sidings for days, while in Bucharest, human bodies were hung on meat hooks and displayed in the windows of butcher shops. After March 1941, German troops were stationed in Romania, preparing for the invasion of the Soviet Union. Although the new Hungarian laws affecting the Transylvanian Jews were troubling, the Jews of Kolozsvár were relieved to be outside the reach of the Romanian mob rule.

In preparation for friendly overtures towards the British (see my writings elsewhere on this site on Magyar-British relations during this period, based on the testimony of Domokos Szent-Iványi and others),  Prime Minister Pál Teleki signed a treaty of peace and eternal friendship with Yugoslavia in February. Many Hungarians saw this as a hopeful sign amid the bellicose sabre-rattling of the Hungarian military, which was fixated on the reacquisition of Croatia in order to fulfill the dream of restoring the former Greater Hungary. Count Teleki was of Transylvanian aristocratic stock, a professor of geography at the University of Budapest, and the joke about him in Kolozsvár was that he was that the cartographer was too busy redrawing the political map of Hungary to remember to look at the physical map showing all the rivers flowing into the Carpathian basin either from German or Russian lands. There was little hope of Hungary remaining neutral and even less hope that Great Britain, standing alone in the west, would concern itself with central-eastern European affairs. In fact, Teleki himself was a mild-mannered but vocal anti-Semite, though he claimed to be relatively friendly towards the ‘assimilated’, patriotic Jews of the big cities.

Nevertheless, it was under his premiership that the anti-Jewish laws were strengthened and in early 1941 the Hungarian government closed all Jewish newspapers, including Új Kelet (‘New East’), the paper Kasztner was writing for in Kolozsvár. Having lost his voice among the people in Transylvania, he was worried that he would also lose his status and influence. He needed a job, and certainly did not want to accept the patronage of his affluent father-in-law. It was agreed that once he was established in the capital, his wife, ‘Bógyo’, would join him. So it was that in the early spring of 1941 Rezső Kasztner arrived in Budapest, from where he was to secure the release and survival of tens of thousands of fellow wealthy Jews in his dealings with Adolf Eichmann three years later.

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1946: Revival of the Hungarian Independence Movement

In February 1946, Zoltán Tildy became the President of the Republic, while Ferenc Nagy became Prime Minister of a government in which the Smallholders retained half the portfolios. Besides the Minister of the Interior, Rajk, the Communists supplied the Deputy Premier, Rákosi, and the transport and welfare ministers. They exploited these positions with tactical skill and ruthlessness against the Smallholder majority, which hesitated to take a tough line against the Soviet-supported left-wing grouping. The group consolidated their advocacy of class warfare and the need to proceed with social revolution through the creation of a Left Wing Bloc on 5 March.

This was the same day on which Winston Churchill made his famous speech referring to the iron curtain separating the Soviet occupied regions from the rest of Europe. Although it was a full year before the Truman Doctrine marked the beginning of the USA’s entry into the Cold War, it was clearly imminent in 1946 and induced Stalin to accelerate the Sovietisation of the occupied territories. This was the background against which the Communists in Hungary prepared to eliminate their rivals through ‘salami slicing’ tactics, as Rákosi called them. It began as soon as the Nagy government took office.

In response, during February and March, three men attempted to revive the MFM, the Hungarian Independence Movement, which had been dormant since the Nazi Occupation of Hungary two years earlier. One or two days after 19 March 1944, according to Domokos Szent-Iványi,  the directors of the MTK (The Hungarian Fraternal Community), the secret society within the Regency and Government of Hungary, allied to the MFM, with an overlapping membership, decided to suspend its operations due to the presence of the Gestapo and the advance of the Red Army. At that time, the MTK had been mainly a social society rather than a political organisation. In 1946, however, a trio led by György Donáth wanted the MTK to become more politically active. Donáth began to promote the idea of an Underground Army, advocated by Major Szent-Miklósy, who had been impressed by the success of the Polish Underground Army. The third man, Károly Kiss, had spent his life organising the administration of the MTK, since it had come into being in the early 1920s. He was an engineer, and had become an influential leader of the MTK by 1939. All three men were arrested and put on show trials before ‘the People’s Tribunal’ later in 1946 and in 1947.

The men were motivated by the belief that the Soviets would soon be forced by the western powers to evacuate central-Eastern Europe, including Hungary, but that before leaving, they would take steps to establish Communist rule by force of arms. This was what lay behind the idea of an ‘Underground Army’ which would keep order and democracy in the country. Papers outlining these plans and ambitions were later ‘discovered’ by the ÁVO (secret police) and formed the basis for the show trials.

1991: Return to Cold War & Operation Desert Storm

Following the escalation of conflict between Moscow and the Baltic States in January, Boris Yeltsin, the parliamentary leader of the Russian State, signed a mutual security pact with his Baltic counterparts. A summit meeting between Gorbachev and Bush, planned for February, was abandoned as East-West relations again deteriorated. Conscious of Soviet ties to Iraq and hard-line Kremlin opposition to US gunboat diplomacy, Gorbachev realised that even though the Soviet Union had initially voted at the UN to support the use of force against Iraq, he would need time to work on the government in Baghdad. On 18 February, he met with Iraq’s foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, in Moscow in a last-ditch attempt at mediation. However, the timetable for the ground war against the Iraqi regime was already set. Operation Desert Storm began on 24 February. On 27 February, President Bush announced that Kuwait had been ‘liberated’.

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Anti-Gorbachev demonstration. The President of the USSR faces opposition from both sides, from reformers and hard-liners. The latter were planning to oust him from the Kremlin.

In Moscow, Gorbachev fought on, winning a referendum in support of his proposed new Union Treaty; the Soviet Union was to be preserved as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which the freedoms of all nationalities would be guaranteed. Several republics boycotted the vote, Yeltsin supporting them. In March, a coal miners’ strike began in the Donbass, Ukraine, and there were mass demonstrations in Moscow supporting Yeltsin against Gorbachev. These came to a head on 28 March when a planned protest proceeded in spite of a ban and the presence of fifty thousand police and soldiers on the streets of the capital. The marches went off peacefully, but the ban and the massing of armed forces caused great offence, with Gorbachev suffering a further loss of respect among reformers.

Sources:

Domokos Szent-Iványi (2013) (Kodolányi & Szeklér (eds.)), The Hungarian Independence Movement, 1939-46. Budapest: Hungarian Review Books.

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train. London: Constable & Robinson.

Jeremy Isaacs (1998), Cold War. London: Bantham Press.

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War. Chichester: Somersdale.

Lászlo Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.

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